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The Environment Ministry will consider designating dugongs living in waters around Okinawa a rare domestic species, the environment minister said Friday.

Shunichi Suzuki told a regularly scheduled news conference that his ministry will consider the move following the discovery Jan. 31 of an adult dugong in the Pacific Ocean 1 km off Nago, on the northwestern corner of the main Okinawa island.

The gender of the dugong, which was spotted by researchers from a light plane, could not be confirmed, according to the ministry. The depth of the water in the area is about 15 meters.

The designation, based on the Species Preservation Law, could affect government plans to build a floating airport for civil and U.S. military use off Nago, part of an area that is the only dugong habitat in Japan.

This is the third dugong confirmed in waters off Okinawa by the ministry since it started surveying the area in February 2002. Ministry researchers found two dugongs in Kin Bay in northern Okinawa in September.

Suzuki told reporters the ministry will make efforts at collecting more data on the habitat of the sea mammal. According to the ministry, there are good feeding grounds for dugongs in the area.

The ministry has been conducting a survey to check the distribution of the animals in the area, their feeding habits and genetic makeup, and to assess the environmental impact of the planned airport.

Efforts to protect the mammals, often considered the inspiration for seafarers’ tales of mermaids and sirens, were launched after the Defense Facilities Administration Agency spotted several dugongs off Nago, where the airport is to be built, during a preliminary survey in October 2000.

The airport has been proposed to take over the heliport functions of the U.S. Marine Corps’ Futenma Air Station in central Okinawa.

The dugong area is some 5 km from the planned airport site.

The United Nations has put the number of dugongs, which can grow to 3.4 meters long and weigh up to 360 kg, at 1,000 to 2,000 worldwide and says they could become extinct in 25 years.

Conservation groups are strongly opposed to the construction of the airport and are campaigning for the creation of a dugong sanctuary in the area.

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