Alaskans at war with U.S. military over readiness exercises

The small town of Cordova, dependent on salmon fishing, is fighting for control of its waters.

 

The air in Cordova, Alaska, is an unlikely mix of fresh glacial air and diesel fuel fumes. On one side of the isolated town rise the Chugach Mountains; on the other, a worn-looking fleet of fishing boats float in Prince William Sound, a northern branch of the Gulf of Alaska. There are no roads in or out of Cordova, and more than half of its 2,000-plus residents depend on the salmon industry. But for two weeks this May, their way of life could be under fire — literally.

While Cordova’s fleet busily prepares for the summer fishing season, another armada will borrow the Gulf of Alaska, starting May 13. Since the Cold War, the U.S. military has periodically practiced cold-weather operations in Alaska’s waters. But locals are worried about the impacts of the Arctic readiness exercises, including possible pollution and harm to marine life, especially because many of the details are unknown. With climate change already hammering the ecosystem, it’s clear that the ocean is not a limitless supply of resources, raising questions about just how much the environment can take and who gets to say how it’s used.

Multiple defense agencies simulate a terrorist situation aboard a ferry in Cordova, Alaska.

Joint training exercises have been held near Cordova nearly every other year since 1975. “Northern Edge,” as the operation is now called, involves a massive force from all branches of the military. While many of the specifics are classified, ships and aircraft fire ammunition, train for submarine detection and evasion, and practice air combat, among other maneuvers. This year, the exercises will feature about 10,000 servicemembers and 250 aircraft spread across the state, with a fleet of five warships in the Gulf of Alaska — a force roughly 50% larger than the 2017 event.

Carol Hoover, the executive director of the Eyak Preservation Council, a Cordova-based conservation organization, worries that chemical contamination, debris, sonar and other effects of the training will harm the ecosystem. Similar concerns inspired a 150-boat demonstration in Cordova’s harbor and united resolutions from more than a dozen Prince William Sound communities and tribes against the 2015 exercises. Ultimately, it comes down to one thing: the fish.

Salmon fisheries in the area have been dwindling in recent years, likely due to a combination of factors, including overfishing, ocean acidification and warming. In 2018, the sockeye salmon catch fell nearly 67% compared to the average over the last decade, most likely owing to unusually warm sea temperatures. That’s something Bert Lewis, a regional supervisor for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game’s Central Region, said could happen more often in the future. “We’re in a state of dynamic flux,” he said. “There were lots of predictable patterns when it comes to the fisheries, but all those patterns have kind of fallen apart.”

Hoover and others fear that Northern Edge will further stress the fish. Sonar’s deadly effects on marine mammals, for example, are well documented, but its impacts on salmon are far less clear. The Navy’s environmental assessment for the exercises concludes that fish are unlikely to have their hearing impacted by sonar, but Hoover and her team wonder whether specific frequencies could physically damage salmon. A study commissioned by the Navy in 2008 noted that specific sonar signals could increase death rates in some types of fish by resonating within their swim bladders. But the assessment makes no mention of the problem, and no research has been done to examine it.

And while large debris and contamination are an obvious concern, the harmful impacts of chemical changes — from explosives, aircraft chaff, or other expendables — are another major unknown. According to Michael Stocker, the director of Ocean Conservation Research, a nonprofit focused on ocean noise pollution, salmon rely on water chemistry to navigate. But “we don’t have any studies about how these salmon are being compromised by the chemicals,” he said.

Master Sgt. Miguel Lara III, a planner for the Air Force, said the Navy’s environmental assessment is thorough and was “developed using the best available science.” He added that Northern Edge overlaps only minimally with established fisheries management areas, though Hoover and others argue that those areas don’t include all salmon habitat. Still, Lara said, “Alaska is strategically important to the United States, both as a location to project military power into the Indo-Pacific and to ensure the United States is protected from external threats.” From the military’s perspective, holding Northern Edge in the Gulf of Alaska in May provides the most realistic training conditions for regional operations during a time when the exercises are unlikely to be hampered by bad weather.

In a town that takes so much pride in its salmon, it’s no wonder that locals are worried. “If the fishermen aren’t doing well, the community suffers,” said Bill Webber, a Cordova fisherman of 52 years. Webber, who came close to foreclosure when the Exxon Valdez oil spill ravaged local fisheries 30 years ago, doesn’t want to risk another disaster. “Alaska is one of the last wild and sustainable, pure and clean ecosystems left on the planet which still has a good diversity of seafood resources that we harvest and feed the world with,” he said. “Do we need to be exploding those bombs up here? I’d say no.”

Ryan Wichelns is a Colorado-based outdoor adventure writer. Email High Country News at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor

High Country News Classifieds
  • DEAN, W. A. FRANKE COLLEGE OF FORESTRY AND CONSERVATION, UNIVERSITY OF MONTANA
    Dean, W. A. Franke College of Forestry and Conservation, apply http://bit.ly/2548umjobs. AA/EEO/ADA/Veterans Preference Employer
  • GRAPHIC DESIGNER
    Western Resource Advocates (WRA) seeks a creative and driven graphic design professional to design high quality print and digital collateral. The Graphic Designer will bring...
  • STEWARDSHIP SPECIALIST
    San Isabel Land Protection Trust seeks experienced person to manage its 133 conservation easements in south-central Colorado.
  • CAMPAIGN REPRESENTATIV
    Sierra Club's Beyond Dirty Fuels Campaign is hiring an experienced campaigner to lead our work challenging the oil and fracked gas industry on the Gulf...
  • AG LANDS PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    Oregon Agricultural Trust (OAT) seeks passionate relationship builder experienced in coordinating agricultural conservation easement transactions.
  • REMOTE SITKA ALASKA FLOAT HOUSE VACATION RENTAL
    Vacation rental located in calm protected waters 8 miles from Sitka, AK via boat with opportunities to fish and view wildlife. Skiff rental also available.
  • FINANCE DIRECTOR
    Mountain Studies Inst (MSI) is hiring 4+ positions: Finance Director; Coms/Engagmnt Mngr; Dev/Engagmnt Dir; Americorps vol
  • COMMUNICATIONS AND ENGAGEMENT MANAGER
    Mountain Studies Inst (MSI) is hiring 4+ positions: Finance Director; Dev/Engagement Dir; Coms/Engagement Mngr; & Americorps volunteer
  • SEASONAL TRAIL CREW LEADERS
    Lead the nation's premier volunteer-based trail crew programs on the spectacular Pacific Crest National Scenic Trail. This is a great career-building opportunity for rising professionals....
  • ORGANIZING AND TRAINING COORDINATOR
    Is this your dream job? Are you looking to join a nationally recognized organizing network, live in a spectacular part of the West, and work...
  • DEVELOPMENT AND ADVOCACY DIRECTOR
    Provide stewardship and protection for the Great Burn wildlands along the Montana-Idaho stateline. This position is based in Missoula, MT, where a river runs through...
  • DEVELOMENT DIRECTOR
    Great Old Broads for Wilderness is seeking a qualified Development Director to manage the fundraising success of our growing organization, including the team-driven implementation of...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Central Oregon LandWatch is seeking an Executive Director to advance our mission and oversee the development of the organization. Job Description: The Executive Director oversees...
  • LISA MACKEY PHOTOGRAPHY
    Fine Art Gicle Printing. Photo papers, fine art papers, canvas. Widths up to 44". Art printing by an artist.
  • SAN JUAN BASIN ENERGY CAMPAIGN ORGANIZER
    San Juan Citizens Alliance is seeking a full-time San Juan Energy Campaign Organizer located in Farmington, New Mexico. The San Juan Energy Campaign Organizer focuses...
  • WILDLIFE PROGRAM MANAGER
    San Juan Citizens Alliance (SJCA) is looking for a passionate, experienced, and motivated Wildlife Program Manager to lead campaigns to protect and enhance wildlife and...
  • GRANT WRITER
    "This thriving citizens organization exemplifies the ideal of public involvement in public processes."- Billings Gazette Help protect Montana's water quality, family farms and ranches, &...
  • COMMUNITY ORGANIZER AND MEMBERSHIP COORDINATOR
    Western Colorado Alliance is hiring for 4 positions, 2 Full Time Community Organizers, 1 Part Time Community Organizer and a Part Time Membership Coordinator. For...
  • BUSINESS OPERATIONS DIRECTOR
    Thorne Nature Experience is looking for a Business Operations Director who will work in partnership with the Executive Director and Thorne's Directors and Managers to...
  • WILDERNESS CONSERVATION CORPS - OREGON
    The Siskiyou Mountain Club is hiring interns for the 2020 Field Season. Interns utilize non-mechanized tools to complete trail restoration and maintenance while gaining job...