Posted by: The ocean update | June 10, 2015

Navy exercises draw protest (Alaska, USA)

Drummers protest Friday on the Homer Spit to the Navy training exercises slated to begin June 15. The exercises are a threat to marine life, they say. HOMER TRIBUNE/Sean Pearson

Drummers protest Friday on the Homer Spit to the Navy training exercises slated to begin June 15. The exercises are a threat to marine life, they say. HOMER TRIBUNE/Sean Pearson

Northern Edge organizers say actual impact will be much smaller than approved plans

June 10th, 2015 (Carey Restino). Framed by a backdrop of stormy skies and chilling winds, protesters of the upcoming Navy training exercises in Alaska waters raised banners, beat drums and boarded boats to circle alongside the Homer Spit on Friday in an effort to raise awareness about concerns voiced in other coastal Alaska communities.

Protesters said the Navy’s upcoming training exercises, called “Northern Edge,” puts salmon, whales and other marine mammals and the ocean ecosystem at risk during a critical time of year. They say the environmental impact statement filed for the training has authorized the Navy to dump five tons of chemicals such as cyanide into the waters, as well as use sonar, found to be damaging — if not deadly — to whales swimming deep below the training exercises.

They have asked the Navy to delay their training until later in the year and go further offshore, but so far, the Navy has not modified its plans to train starting June 15.

Shelley Gill, a longtime whale researcher in Prince William Sound and one of the organizers of the protest in Homer, said there is a lot the public doesn’t know about what the Navy plans to do during its training exercise. The only official document anyone has to go on is the environmental impact statement, and it calls for a significant increase in the amount of chemicals pumped into the water, sonar used and “ordinances” detonated.

“Nobody thinks the Navy doesn’t have to train, but why would you train during the migration in Alaska,” she said.

“Why would you introduce all these noxious chemicals into their habitat when we’ve worked so hard in Alaska to keep our waters clean? This is just critical.”

The Navy says, however, that a lot of misinformation is being distributed regarding the exercises. The environmental impact statement asked for approval of exercises far beyond what will be used, it says.

For example, said Capt. Anastasia Wasem, director of public affairs for the Alaska Command 11th Air Force division, Northern Edge requested permission to use 360 bombs. The actual number it will use is zero. Similarly, 66 missiles were permitted through the environmental assessment, but none are to be used.

Only 6 percent of the allotted gunshells and 8 percent of the allotted Naval arms rounds are to be used in the exercise. And only 15 percent of the permitted sonobuoys permitted through the impact statement, none of which are explosive, are to be used this year.

“A lot of the numbers people are using are very misleading,” Wasem said.

Wasem attributes the difference between what was permitted at the Navy’s request and what will actually be used by planners trying to prepare for any possible future situation and the training needs those possibilities would require.

That’s not to say, however, that the training exercises, to be conducted in the Gulf of Alaska some 24 nautical miles south of the shoreline of the Kenai Peninsula, as well as central Alaska ranges, over 11 days, are not extensive. Some 6,000 U.S. military personnel will be involved.

Personnel from U.S. military units stationed in the continental United States and from U.S. installations in the Pacific, will participate with approximately 200 aircraft from all services, as well as three U.S. Navy destroyers and one U.S. Navy submarine operating in the Gulf of Alaska.

Most personnel and units will deploy to and operate from Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson and Eielson Air Force Base. Participants will serve as part of a joint task force practicing tasks associated with joint operations.

Whale researchers like Gill are concerned about the impacts the use of sonar can have on fisheries around the state — as well as whales — who have been shown in other regions to be highly impacted by the magnified sound, especially when the whales are deep in the water.

“When they hear the magnified sonar, they make a race for the surface, get the bends and blow their brains out,” Gill said.

With several endangered species of whale living in the Alaska Trench, the risk that a whale could be harmed by the sonar use is too high, she said.

Wasem said, however, that the Navy employs trained lookouts to spot marine mammals. If they see them in the region, even a sea otter, they halt the exercise, she said.

“There are extensive mitigation procedures for marine mammals,” she said.
Gill said she doesn’t buy that, given the cost of the exercise and the number of agencies involved.

“They said some things I don’t believe,” she said.

While fewer than a dozen boats turned out for the Homer protest, more than 100 — including many from Homer — participated in the protest in Cordova. Gill said many of the fishermen she talked to while organizing the protest said they didn’t know anything about the issue.

Protesters at this week’s event called for Alaska waters to be kept unpolluted with banners that said slogans like “Go Navy, just go,” and “Not in our fish basin.”

Others drew parallels to the damage caused by the Exxon Valdez oil spill, and said we are still learning the lesson that fish don’t rebound as quickly as we would like them to, especially when compounded by other environmental factors — like warming waters.

“Some things we can control and some things we can’t, like climate change,” Gill said. “We can control what happens in our waters and take care of these areas as best we can.”

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