A recent Alaska Dispatch News article expressed concerns over the Military Readiness Exercises planned for early May in the Gulf of Alaska. It quoted a member of the Eyak Preservation Council in Cordova stating that she feared damage to marine life would occur. Those concerns, while genuinely held, are not justified according to the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), which is the federal agency charged with providing protection to the marine environment.
Military Readiness Exercises (MRE) have occurred in Alaska starting in 1975 with “Jack Frost” then continued with “Brim Frost”, “Arctic Warrior” and now a decade of “ Northern Edge exercises,” (NE).
MREs are designed to train our joint forces consisting of the Navy, Air Force, Army, Marines, and Coast Guard to be able to meet or prevent Indo-Asian-Pacific region threats to the U.S. from overseas aggressors.
Beginning in 2011 a series of NE exercise were planned for several years and since the exercises were to be conducted in areas where there might be an impact on threatened or endangered species, salmon and habitat, the U.S. Navy generated complete environmental impact statements for the five years of the NE exercises.
In 2016, this EIS was reviewed by NMFS, operating under the control of an administration that prided itself with marine and environmental conservation.
NMFS considered impacts to salmon, marine mammals and habitat.
After a very thorough review, NMFS came to several conclusions.
For salmon: It did “not expect the MRE activities to appreciably reduce Chinook, Coho, Chums and Sockeye.” There has been speculation that recent weak runs of salmon in Alaska might be connected to these MREs. It seems clear that this speculation is not supported by the facts.
As for mammals, NMFS went on to say that for years 2011 through 2016 based on exhaustive studies “the effect of the military readiness activities the navy proposes to conduct in the Gulf of Alaska each year for a 5 year period … it is NMFS biological opinion that the navy’s activities are not likely to jeopardize the continuing existence of these threatened and endangered species under NMFS jurisdiction.”
As for habitat concerns, it said: “because critical habitat that has been endangered or threatened does not occur in the action area, it is not likely to be adversely affected by the military readiness activities the navy proposes to conduct in the Gulf of Alaska.”
Recently the U.S. Navy has approved the 2017 NE exercise, which will allow one large scale carrier group exercise including anti submarine warfare and live sonar activities. This approval has scaled down some activities to provide even more protections from noise and other disturbances to marine mammals.
The concerns expressed by the Eyak preservation council member or other unnamed people referred to in the article do not appear to be justified in the eyes of the very agency, NMFS, that oversees and protects the marine environment.
Nor do they seem to be shared by many who participate in commercial or recreational fisheries. Had there been specific concerns from the fishing industry I am confident that the author of the article would have cited them.
As an Alaska Board of Fisheries member who served seven years, all of which was during the time when NE exercises took place after being approved and issued permits by NMFS, I can offer some information about how concerned fisheries stakeholder seemed to be. I worked with State biologists, scientists from the private sector, fisheries managers, processors, commercial and recreational stakeholders, the general public and other Board members concerning fish sustainability and habitat issues. Many of these people were from or utilized the Gulf of Alaska or nearby areas for recreational or commercial purpose. At no time did I ever hear any environmental concerns over using small parts of the Gulf for military training. You would think that with the publicity given the matter that someone would have said something. Especially someone who depends on the resource and its sustainability.
The area proposed for these exercise is quite remote and far from salmon fisheries in the gulf. It is an area outside of Middleton Island, an isolated piece of ground nearly 100 miles from Cordova. There is no salmon fishing of any kind that I am aware of undertaken in the proposed NE area.
The NE 2017 exercise is projected to provide 13 million dollars in economic benefit to Alaska, engage 6,000 service men and women, over 350 aircraft and 3 naval vessels. All in an effort to train our joint services to better protect our country. Significantly more military resources were used in previously approved NE exercises which suggests that there will be even less impact with the NE 2017 exercises.
Even though there is a possibility that fish and mammal mortality may occur, every effort is being taken to insure minimal impact to the environment and marine life. During the exercise there will be no use of bombs or torpedoes as has been previously suggested. The only anticipated ordnance will be inert gun shells and small arms rounds.
Risks to threatened or endangered species, salmon, and habitat is negligible and well worth the benefit of having our country’s military services properly trained and ready to protect us in the event of a crisis.
Karl Johnstone is a former Alaska Superior court Judge, Chair of the Alaska Board of Fisheries, and a member of the Alaska Commander’s Civilian Advisory Board