Alaskans need to unite against Navy exercises

I was one of the many local citizen activists who rose up in response to the catastrophic 1989 Exxon oil spill in our home waters of Prince William Sound, the Kenai Peninsula and the Gulf of Alaska. 

That wave of crisis and opportunity helped create, among other things, the Regional Citizens Advisory Councils and the Prince William Sound Science Center. Birthed out of an environmental crisis, the science center was formed in order to better understand the Prince William Sound/Copper River Delta ecosystems and the contiguous Gulf of Alaska — and help prevent future environmental catastrophes. 

The science center’s stated aim is to support “the ability of communities in this region to maintain socioeconomic resilience among healthy, functioning ecosystems.”    But the science center is currently in danger of betraying its founding mission and responsibility. 

I recently talked to the science center’s president and she told me that, regarding the Navy’s planned “Northern Edge” multi-year war games in the Gulf of Alaska, the science center “does not have a position on the matter.” I can only conjecture as to why.

Perhaps the center thinks to cloak itself in scientific objectivity and act as an impartial fair witness to unfolding events? Perhaps it is in part because the science center receives funding from the Navy? In any event, if the science center’s silence is prolonged much longer, it is in danger of serving Backward Science, or BS.

The Navy refers to Alaska and its waters as “a true national asset,” while at the same time preparing to wage war on it in the interest of “national security.” On the PWS Science Center’s home page it says it is committed to understanding how our region — which it calls “The World’s Richest Waters” —  “can maintain a reliable economy and natural environment for the long term.”

One obvious answer to that question is to help prevent the Navy from blasting the hell out of it. Concerned citizens have recently held rallies and demonstrations in Cordova, Kodiak and Homer. And recent victories in the courts have at least temporarily put on hold similarly planned Navy war games in Hawaiian and Californian waters. The science center has a great opportunity to join other brave voices from the local and global community — like Cordova District Fisherman United, the Eyak Preservation Council, the Cordova City Council, Prince William Soundkeeper, Cook Inletkeeper, the North Gulf Oceanic Society and others — and help praise and protect the Gulf of Alaska.  As the saying goes, “Research in lieu of action is  unconscionable.”  

From a recent report by journalist Dahr Jamail:  The Navy’s Environmental Impact Statement estimates that, in the five-year period in which these war games are to be conducted, there will be more than 182,000 “takes” — direct deaths of a marine mammal, or the disruption of essential behaviors like breeding, nursing or surfacing.  On the deaths of fish, it offers no estimates at all.

According to the National Marine Fisheries Service, effects on habitats and communities from Northern Edge “may result in damage that could take years to decades from which to recover.” Earlier this year a federal court ruled that Navy war games off the coast of California violated the law. It deemed an estimated 9.6 million “harms” to whales and dolphins via high-intensity sonar and underwater detonations improperly assessed as “negligible” in that service’s EIS … Northern Edge will take place in critical habitat in an Alaskan “marine protected area,” as well as in a NOAA-designated “fisheries protected area.” 

These war games will also coincide with the key breeding and migratory periods of the marine life in the region as ocean species make their way toward Prince William Sound, as well as further north into the Arctic.

  So, NMFS gave the Navy four recommendations to comply with for the war games and the Navy’s response was No, No, Maybe, and No. For example, why doesn’t the Navy wait until autumn for the exercises when there would be less chance of harassing and killing marine mammals and other fish and wildlife? Spokesperson Air Force Capt. Anastasia Wasem says delaying would expose the military participants to potential weather impediments and additional expenses. If bad weather forces a day’s delay in Northern Edge activities, “that’s a whole day of training and a whole day of money that is essentially wasted … we have to train when the weather is conducive to training.” 

In the real world, I would add, it’s fortunate that wars and oil spills and other emergencies only happen when the weather is conducive. The Navy likes to talk about their commitment to the environment and about how they support and fund a lot of science. But our Navy, bless its heart, (with just its active sonar alone) has a well-documented habit of vandalizing the the world’s oceans, and a cavalier approach to science that yields results that are shoddy, obfuscatory and disingenuous.

Scientist Michael Stocker, a bio-acoustician and founder of Ocean Conservation Research — one of the foremost point organizations tracking the Navy’s longstanding practices — says, “Indeed the Navy wants to make the entire ocean their ‘testing and training range.’ I don’t know what got into these folks early on, but somehow this prospect seems reasonable to them.”  

Just like the Exxon oil spill, the crisis we find ourselves in now is a dangerous time of opportunity — an opportunity to rally hearts and minds, a chance to raise our voices and act in accordance with what is most dear. It is a defining moment to declare who and what we are in service to:  to some out-of-balance Navy brass who have lost their wisdom or to the priceless and irreplaceable Gulf of Alaska, and its associated ecosystems and human communities. Will it be bomb and rocket science or Sound science?  

No doubt there are many folks at the Prince William Sound Science Center who want to speak out on this issue. No doubt the planned war games are in the wrong place at the wrong time. I encourage the science center to join in the love, praise and protection of the Gulf of Alaska and do the right thing. Our beloved waters are still healing from the effects of the oil spill more than 25 years later. As it is said in the science of the healing arts, “First do no more harm.”  

David Lynn Grimes is a bardic musician and storyteller, a naturalist and wilderness guide, whale researcher and former commercial herring and salmon fisherman from Cordova. In the wake of the Exxon Valdez oil spill, he has been one of the many citizen artists and activists involved in praising and protecting healthy wild habitat for critters and human communities.