Murkowski, groups want to see Gulf of Alaska military exercise moved to fall

Environmental activists, coastal Alaskans and Sen. Lisa Murkowski are all asking the U.S. Navy to move a biennial training exercise in the Gulf of Alaska to the fall, away from the fishing season.

The Northern Edge 2017 exercise, an expansive military exercise set to begin Monday and last through May 12, that includes thousands of active, reserve and National Guard military members from the Air Force, Army, Navy, Marine Corps and Coast Guard. The drill takes place between 24 and 104 nautical miles offshore, including a variety of ships and aircraft, to prepare the military to respond to crises in the Asia Pacific region. The military has conducted the drill at different points in the year since 1975.

However, some Alaskans are concerned about the exercise’s effect on marine species such as whales and salmon. The exercise will take place just as the salmon start returning to Cook Inlet and Kodiak’s streams and will cause a lot of noise in the marine environment, possibly harming whales and other marine mammals. The Homer City Council adopted a resolution in August 2016 asking the Navy to avoid using any live ordnance or sonar in marine protected areas and to move its activities to mid-September and to the far southeast corner of the designated, off the Outer Continental Shelf. Nine other communities around the Gulf coast have passed similar resolutions expressing concerns.

Groups have also expressed concern that the military is not taking public comments properly into consideration while planning. The Eyak Preservation Council launched a campaign, called Summer is for Salmon, specifically against the Northern Edge exercise. In its sample letter to elected officials on its website, the council raised concerns about the lack of transparency with the process, linking the use of sonar during the exercise to a number of whale deaths around the Gulf of Alaska in 2015 and 2016. Many of the letters, signed by individuals, were sent to Murkowski’s office.

In September 2016, Murkowski sent a letter to Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus joining in stakeholder concerns about the exercise and asking for more public engagement.

“Any further delay in stakeholder communication could result in the adoption of similar resolutions (to Homer’s) by other coastal communities in Southcentral Alaska and endanger support for the Navy’s long term involvement in the Northern Edge exercise, nonwithstanding its intention to avoid or mitigate environmental impacts,” she wrote.

She followed up with another letter, dated April 7, to U.S. Pacific Command commanders Harry B. Harris, Jr. and Scott H. Swift, urging the military to consider moving the exercise to September when it occurs in 2019 and to be transparent about its reasoning.

“In spite of the Navy’s improved outreach there remains dissatisfaction with respect to the timing of the exercise, specifically, its proximity to the fishing season in the Gulf of Alaska,” she wrote. “Some stakeholders argue that scientific knowledge is insufficient to assure that the Navy’s activities during this sensitive time are fully compatible with the region’s commercial fishing economy.”

The Navy does have to complete an environmental review process before engaging in the exercise. The planners completed a joint environmental impact statement in 2013, and the National Marine Fisheries Service issues a permit for Northern Edge each time it occurs.

Running the operation in the winter is not possible, according to the final record of decision for the EIS, issued April 21.

“Weather conditions in the (Gulf of Alaska) preclude conducting an integrated exercised during the winter because sea conditions, storms, fog, ewer daytime hours, and other environmental conditions lead to safety concerns for both ships and airplane involved in nay winter exercise, and reduce the chance of conducting training events,” the decision state

s.

The NMFS offered a biological opinion about the impacts of the exercise, dated April 19, setting up mitigation requirements to minimize damage to marine mammals and fish. While the effects on fish from sonar would be minimal — fish are able to avoid long exposures in the wild, according to the opinion — the use of sonar could negatively impact whales, the opinion states.

As a result, NMFS recommended the military develop procedures to help any ESA-olisted marine mammals impacted by activities, continue thorough research on impacts, continue supporting recording of underwater ambient and human-produced sounds in the area, and continue working with NMFS to collect data.

“Conservation recommendations are discretionary agency activities to minimize or avoid adverse effects of a proposed action on ESA-listed species or critical habitat, to help implement recovery plans or develop information,” the opinion states.

Reach Elizabeth Earl at elizabeth.earl@peninsulaclarion.com.

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