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Alaska Natives, fishermen protest Navy training during fishing season

2011 modifications to drill allow for longer exercises, more explosives, and use of sonar in protected water

KODIAK, Alaska —The U.S. Navy is set to kick off a training exercise on Monday that could dump hundreds of thousands of pounds of waste into the Gulf of Alaska, amid protests by Alaskan fishermen and coastal indigenous communities.

The Navy has conducted similar training in the region before. However, many locals are concerned by the plans for longer exercises using more explosives in protected fisheries, which provide food and jobs for thousands, during peak salmon season. The Navy maintains that these fears are unfounded, but some locals remain skeptical.

“The fish and the resources out here all tie together and that’s what makes this community,” said Tom Lance, Environmental Director of the Sun’aq tribe in Kodiak. “Our longevity depends on it. So here we have the military potentially impacting our resources we need for subsistence. The very people [the Navy is] defending, they may be impacting.”

More than 42,000 square nautical miles of the Gulf of Alaska has been slated for the exercise. The area overlaps with federal and state marine reserves near the entrance of Prince William Sound, crossing the migration route of five species of salmon. Among the fishing communities that depend on the gulf for food are Kodiak, Cordova and Homer, as well as a dozen indigenous tribes. Many along the coast are still reeling from the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill.

The Navy has been conducting various training exercises in the Gulf of Alaska for some 30 years. Northern Edge has been held annually since 1993, and every other year since 2009. The current parameters of the exercise were approved in 2011 — but the 2013 exercise was called off because of federal sequestration. This year’s exercise will be the second training under the 2011 parameters.

It is those 2011 changes that concern locals, many of whom said they were unaware the exercise happened that year at all. The new parameters increase the allowed number of consecutive training days from 14 to 21. It also increases the amount of so-called “expended materials” that could be dumped in the ocean from 76,200 to 352,000 pounds.

“Expended materials” could include bullet casings, torpedoes, and bombs, amongst other materials described in the 2011 environmental impact statement the Navy authored in accordance with federal law. Of the expended materials, nearly 3 percent could be hazardous materials such as heavy metals and cyanide, according to the statement.

However, Alaskan Command spokeswoman Captain Anastasia Wasem said that just because the 2011 modifications allow for all these increases doesn’t mean the Navy would necessarily use them. In fact, she said, they aren’t going to. Most of this year’s exercise will be using small arms, machine guns and naval gun shells. Only a “small portion” will be explosives. Wasem said she did not have information on what was used in the 2011 drill.

“There’s a lot that the military and the Navy go through in order to protect the environment,” Wasem said. “If you look at the [environmental impact statement,] it has a maximum allowable amount of training that you can do. It also has a maximum allowable [amount of] what you can release into the Gulf of Alaska. Northern Edge is not going to go close to that maximum level.”

In approximate terms, the 2011 parameters allow for the use of 360 bombs. Wasem said Northern Edge 2015 will use zero. The Navy will only use 6 percent of allotted naval gunfire, and only 15 percent of allotted sonar buoys, she added.   

But Lance said many fear they can’t take the Navy’s word on that. “Why did they ask for permission if they weren’t going to do it? Until they can assure us that they indeed are not going to do it, then they better darn well come up with someone a little more official.”

The Navy has denied local requests for the deployment of third party observers to the training.

“The simple answer is that [the 2011 parameters] allow us to be able to conduct the training, should it need to be conducted,” Wasem said. “It’s not necessary for the type of training that we are trying to accomplish. There’s no need for us to go above and beyond the specific training that we are trying to accomplish in the Gulf of Alaska. And that’s all we’re focused on, is our specific training requirements and objectives.”

The 2011 modifications also expand the permitted use of sonar during the training, which some are concerned could harm marine mammals or salmon populations. Wasem said that the exercise has used sonar in the past, though the 2011 modifications increase the number of sonar buoys that can be used from 24 to 1,587 and introduce the use of active sonar. Active sonar emits sound waves to locate underwater objects, while passive sonar simply listens to underwater sounds.

In a 2011 letter, the National Marine Fisheries Service disagreed with the Navy’s assessment that environmental damage would be minimal, citing concerns about “physical and chemical effects from expended materials” and writing that “acoustic effects cannot be fully discounted until they are understood better.”

There is no system in place to study the effects Northern Edge has on fish populations. Wasem said any observed harm to marine mammals would be recorded in Navy ship logs.

Leading up to the drill, fishermen and others have staged flotilla-style protests in the harbors of Kodiak, Cordova and Homer. The City of Cordova and Kodiak Borough Assembly have both passed resolutions against the exercise as it is currently planned, and several indigenous tribal councils have spoken out against the plans.

“The connection to the sea for us is extremely important,” said Melissa Borton, tribal administrator for the Native Village of Afognak. “Not just as a food resource — it’s who we are.”

She added: “Our greatest concern is the time of year [of Northern Edge], primarily. The salmon is just hitting Kodiak, and we have people fishing like crazy.”

“The fishermen don’t have anywhere else to go,” said Emily Stolarcyk of the Eyak Preservation Council in Cordova, a nonprofit dedicated to preserving indigenous Eyak culture in part through the preservation of salmon. “If these fisheries are damaged, they have nowhere else to go to make their living or to feed themselves. The Navy is literally all over the world. We’re not saying take it to somebody else’s backyard, we’re saying maybe we should talk about protecting these resources.”

The seafood industry provides nearly 80,000 jobs in Alaska. Opponents to Northern Edge have requested that the exercise be moved farther off shore and postponed until at least September.

“It’s just really irresponsible of the Navy to have practice during the summer during salmon migration,” Kodiak fisherman Dave Kubiak told KMXT, Kodiak’s public radio station, last month. “That’s my biggest gripe.”

Earlier this year, a federal judge stopped the Navy’s training near Hawaii and Southern California. She ruled that the exercises would have a greater impact on the environment than had been described in the Navy’s permit applications, and that the National Marine Fisheries Service had violated environmental laws by approving those permits.

As in the Gulf of Alaska, the Navy has been training near Hawaii and California for decades.

With the current Northern Edge permits set to expire after this year’s exercise, the Navy is already in the process of securing permission to continue the drill for the next five years. With little hope that this year’s drill will be called off, Stolarcyk said many opposed to Northern Edge are in it for the long haul.                                      

“Regardless, we are going to go forward,” Stolarcyk said. “This is not going away anytime soon.”

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