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

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