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Patagonia Japan Employees Team Up to Defend the Dugong

 /  Dec 23, 2009 10 Min Read  /  Activism

Patagonia members, Sho, Hiroyo, Toshimi, Yoko and Tetsu(from left to right) Today's post comes from Yoko Okuya, of Patagonia Japan's Marketing Department. Together with four of her colleagues from a variety of locations throughout Japan, Yoko and her team are taking an innovative approach to Patagonia's Environmental Internship Program by participating in a series of habitat surveys stretching from June 2009 through March of 2010. Their work is focused on the preservation of the radically imperiled population of Okinawa dugong (Dugong dugon).

In 2009, five Patagonia Japan employees all based in different departments created a team that has been participating in the company’s Internship Program through the Association to Protect the Northernmost Dugong. Patagonia Japan has sent individuals through the Internship Program in the past, however, this was the first time that a group participation was approved. The volunteer work that Tetsu Watanabe of Shibuya store, Sho Fukaya of Kanda store, Hiroyo Sakuba of Osaka store, Toshimi Nasu of Kobe store and Yoko Okuya from the Marketing Department had continued from 2008 individually to this single Association based on their own personal interests eventually led to the company providing support for their group internship.

[Patagonia members (from left to right): Sho, Hiroyo, Toshimi, Yoko and Tetsu. All photos courtesy of Yoko Okuya.]

Have you heard of a living creature called the Dugong? Dugongs are sea mammals and in the same Sirenian category as the Manatee. Dugongs prefer the warm waters (at approximately 20 to 30 degrees Celsius) around Australia and tropical/subtropical shallow waters of the East China Sea. They also live in Okinawa, Japan, which is the northernmost region of their habitat. They eat the seagrass that grows in the shallow waters where the sunlight reaches and they consume about 10% (about 30kg) of their body weight each day. The seagrass grows in the shallow waters along the coast so the Dugong’s habitat is easily influenced by human activities. However, since the seagrass is the only food that they eat, they are fated to stay close to the coastline. Their life span is about 70 years and their birthing period is said to be approximately 3 to 7 years. The pregnancy period is from 13 to 14 months and because they can only give birth to one baby at a time, their immune system is weak, making their comeback precarious once the number of existing Dugongs decreases. And in reality, the number of Dugong is getting smaller in many of their habitats. Whether the environment where the Dugongs can thrive is saved is up to the actions of human beings.

 The stuffed dugong of one stranded at Kanna beach in 1973 

[The stuffed dugong of one stranded at Kanna beach in 1973.]

 The skeleton bones of a dugong at Nago Museum in Okinawa

[The skeleton bones of a dugong at Nago Museum in Okinawa.]

 Very beautiful seagrass beds in Kayo 

[Very beautiful seagrass beds in Kayo.]

The Dugongs that inhabit the northernmost region of Okinawa used to inhabit the various coastlines of the Ryukyu Islands (Okinawa Islands). Currently, there is only an estimation that a small regional individual group made up of less than 50 Dugongs currently inhabit the east coast of Okinawa’s main island and it is very rare to actually see one. The Dugongs were listed as Japan’s National Protected species and designated as “Endangered Species IA Type” which is the most critical class in Okinawa Prefecture’s Red Data Book. Despite these actions, Japan’s Environmental Ministry still has not listed the Dugong in the Red Data Book and the country has yet to implement specific measures for its protection. To aggravate this situation further, the Northernmost Dugongs are exposed to serious conditions created by humans that threaten their extinction. These threats caused by human beings include mistaken capture by fishnets, reduction of their feeding bed and worsening of their habitat’s environment due to development. Another monstrous threat that exists is the scheduled construction of the U.S. military base starting in 2010 (to be completed by 2014) in the Henoko ocean area. Henoko is one of the most important habitats of the Dugongs because of the vast seagrass beds, massive coral area and a place where new species are still being discovered. Henoko was designated as the alternative U.S. Military sea heliport when the U.S. government agreed to the total return of the base properties to Japan in 1996.

 The boundary line fence between Camp Schwab military base and Henoko beach 

[The boundary line fence between Camp Schwab military base and Henoko beach.]

 People's prayers for peace and a beautiful ocean 

[People's prayers for peace and a beautiful ocean.]

The goal of the Association to Protect the Northernmost Dugong, where we interned, is to prove the existence of this scarce species in this area, simultaneously clarify the protective measures, and to ultimately have the Dugong habitat that encompasses the east coast of Nago City in Okinawa prefecture be designated as a marine sanctuary. The mission that the five of us carry is to locate the Dugong’s feeding trail called the Dugong trench, gather data on the location, number, types, cover degree, quality of the sea bottom and surrounding habitat, and gain a thorough understanding of the conditions of the Dugong’s habitat. It is difficult to conduct a research on the Dugong itself due to the very few numbers of the Dugongs in Okinawa, however, there is a distinct feeding trail along the seagrass left by them and this remains visible for a while until the seagrass grows again. This research method to continuously monitor/research their feeding trail of the seagrass has minimum impact on the Dugongs and is a way to prove their existence.

 A very clear feeding trail in the seagrass beds 

[A very clear feeding trail in the seagrass beds.]

The last of our three fall research sessions was conducted over a three-day period during November 20th to 23rd and the five of us, scattered all over Japan, reconvened in Okinawa to participate. The research method initially intended to be implemented was to take a boat around the Henoko ocean area. However, the winds were too strong in bad weather so they changed it to a beach entry method from Kayo area several kilometers north from Henoko. The Kayo area is shallower compared to Henoko. Unlike Henoko, which also has a Camp Schwab military base nearby, there is no noise pollution caused by helicopters and amphibious vehicles, resulting in more confirmed feeding trails in the past research. This research was as successful as the past results and we were able to record many feeding trails. Also, this method was recently implemented as an alternative method to the use of boat. It allows for lesser people and lighter footwork compared to the boat. This beach entry method was very effective and appropriate for the relatively shallow areas of the Kayo ocean.

 Morning meeting with all of the participants of that day 

[Morning meeting with all of the participants of that day.]

 Kayo beach where the Fall research was conducted 

[Kayo beach where the fall research was conducted.]

 Confirming an alternative research method at the beach 

[Confirming an alternative research method at the beach.]

 The marker's map for Kayo area 

[The marker's map for Kayo area.]

At  8 a.m., members from the local research team named Team Zan (“Zan” means Dugong in the Okinawan dialect) and five members from Patagonia Japan got together. We wore our wetsuits for cold protection in the drizzling rain and conducted the meeting for the day’s research. We decided to create teams consisting of four people each. The first thing we did was to search for the GPS marker previously set up in 50-meter increments at the beach where the research was to be conducted. We then placed signs painted in neon orange at the site of the marker and put another orange sign where it was vertical to the beach.  These served as the sign to make it possible to draw a straight line in the water with a weighted rope (rope that has lead inside to allow it to sink in the ocean) from the marker. Drawing a straight line allows us to conduct a thorough research of all marine areas. Once the orange signs are placed, one person in charge of pulling the rope holds one end and draws it for the first 50 meters. While this person is swimming and pulling the rope, he/she consistently checks that the two orange signs are in alignment. Once the first 50 meters are drawn, the one in charge of research swims along above the line and records the water depth, bottom sediment quality, seagrass type and cover degree. The remaining two persons swim along either sides to search for the feeding trails. The measurement is conducted every 10 meters and if a feeding trail is found, the number of the feed marks, as well as the type of seagrass around that area and degree of cover are recorded. Once the first 50 meters are covered, the same process of drawing the rope is taken off the island to cover another 50 meters. Since the research area is considered basically to be from the marker on the beach to 300 meters off shore in the water, we repeat the same process six times and that concludes the research on the 1st marker.

 Two orange signs which are placed vertically to the beach 

[Two orange signs which are placed vertically to the beach.]

 One person is swimming and pulling the rope, checking that the 2 signs are matching 

[One person is swimming and pulling the rope, checking that the two signs are matching.]

 The rope is marked by yellow and white ink so that we can identify its length 

[The rope is marked by yellow and white ink so that we can identify its length.]

Once the ropes are all laid out and you follow this along the sands of the Kayo ocean, the feeding trails of the Dugong spread before your eyes. We have identified 6 different types of seagrass, which are Halophila ovalis, Syringodium isoetifolium, Thalassia hemprichii, Cymodocea serrulata, Cymodocea rotundata, Halodule uninervis and Halodule pinifolia; however, since many of the different types actually look alike, it is necessary to dive to the sea bottom and look at the leaf sheath and veins. Also, the Dugong’s favorite seagrass is a small circular-shaped variety called the “Halophila ovalis” and it looks soft and good even in the water.

 The rope and a feeding trail. You can see Halophila ovalis in the foreground 

[The rope and a feeding trail. You can see Halophila ovalis in the foreground.]

It is interesting that the Dugongs’ feeding trails are often found in areas where the seagrass is slightly sparse rather than the areas where the cover degree is large and the grass grows abundantly. The Dugongs eat the seagrass by opening their mouths sideways and eat down to the underground stem and roots of the sea grass. In clear water and in the newer feeding trails of the Dugongs, you can see a distinct white line across the green colored seagrass bed. You can also see trenches in the same area that go crisscross, which is very hard to count. Okinawa is very prone and affected by the typhoons and pressure patterns and we were affected by unstable weather this time around too, but with the implementation of the new research method we were able to complete the Kayo area research in the three days. We are looking forward to seeing the results on one diagram based on the data we collected.

 Finding a feeding trail 

[Finding a feeding trail.]

 Identifying the type of seagrass 

[Identifying the type of seagrass.]

 You can see the number of trenches on the fifth column from the left in the report 

[You can see the number of trenches on the fifth column from the left in the report.]

 The trenches in the same area that go crisscross -- difficult to count 

[The trenches in the same area that go crisscross — difficult to count.]

 Even in warm Okinawa, it's impossible to spend all day in the water without wearing a wetsuit 

[Even in warm Okinawa, it's impossible to spend all day in the water without wearing a wetsuit.]

With the construction due to begin in 2010, and with the mayor’s election for the city of Nago where Henoko is located slated for January next year, news on the Futenma military base transfer is being reported on a daily basis. Amidst this situation, the five of us from Patagonia Japan can participate in the biological research, communicate the results and local conditions to the people living on the mainland and assist in working toward a solution by raising awareness.

Compared to the sense of sight, the Dugongs’ have an extremely advanced sense of hearing and live by catching the sound vibration that travels in the water. They are therefore very wary and cautious. Nobody from our team and Team Zan has seen a Dugong. The elusive Dugong has rarely been sighted but the proof of their existence in the ocean is clearly marked in the feeding trails. Approximately 30 minutes by car from Henoko, there is a hill that we call “The Hill Where You Can See the Dugongs.” When we stand at the point of the cliff where the research area of Henoko and Kayo ocean can be seen, we lose words in awe of the beauty of the ocean. We can clearly imagine the Dugongs, that we have yet to see with our eyes, swimming in those waters. As we reflect on the natural environment and the culture and many lives nurtured in Okinawa, we feel so strongly that the Dugongs are a vital part of those elements and an indispensable existence that must remain intact for the future.

 The Hill Where You Can See the Dugongs 

[The Hill Where You Can See the Dugongs.]

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