The U.S. Navy’s annual Northern Edge exercises are slated to take place this month.
The military training, which takes place in the Gulf of Alaska, is designed to replicate challenging scenarios and environmental conditions around the world and prepare service members to respond to crises such as natural disasters, global conflicts and threats to homeland security, according to a 2023 Navy training outreach brochure.
The brochure describes that Navy training activities will include various forms of warfare training, including air, surface, anti-submarine, electronic, naval special warfare and strike warfare.
According to the 2022 Gulf of Alaska Navy Training Activities Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), the exercises in the past have included the use of bombs, missiles, targets and pyrotechnics, Naval gun shells, small arms rounds and sonobuoys.
A Navy outreach brochure provided to the Homer News by Navy public relations explains “although simulation may be used for some training activities, there is no substitute for live training to achieve qualifications.”
The brochure also explains that The Northern Edge exercises typically last up to 21 days with approximately 15,000 personnel from all U.S. military services and interagency parterns participating.
Ahead of the exercises, representatives for the U.S. Navy scheduled trips to coastal communities near the Navy’s Temporary Marine Activities Area, including Cordova, Seward, Kodiak and Homer.
Although the Homer leg of the trip was canceled, Commander of the Navy Region Northwest Rear. Adm. Mark Sucato; John Mosher, U.S. Pacific Fleet Northwest and Alaska program manager; and Julianne Leinenveber, environmental public affairs specialist, spoke with the Homer News about the exercises, via Zoom on April 20.
The representatives are visiting the state to hear community concerns and talk about additional mitigation measures the Navy has undertaken, as well as science related to the exercises, Sucato explained in the Zoom meeting.
Dating back to 2015 and 2017, there were concerns in some coastal towns that the Navy’s presence in the Gulf was interfering with biological marine life and commercial fishing activity, the Navy representatives said.
Media coverage of concerns can be found in past records from Sitka’s KCAW public radio, the Sitka Daily Sentinel and articles in the Cordova Times, among others. There are also letters from Sen. Lisa Murkowski to the secretary of the Navy in 2016 and commanders of the U.S. Fleet in 2017 regarding substantial public feedback she had received from Alaska constituents in opposition to spring training.
Sucato said the Navy began after 2017 doing outreach to share research on the effects of the training.
” … What we want folks to hear is that the Navy is extremely sensitive to community and fishermen concerns and have actively taken considerable steps to prevent any interference with both the regional marine life and their livelihoods as well,” he said.
Monitoring efforts in the Gulf of Alaska include marine mammal visual and acoustic surveys, marine species tagging and passive acoustic monitoring, according to information provided by the Navy. More specific details can be found in the comprehensive EIS available at www.goaeis.com.
“We’ve truly worked hard at the research background and record keeping from previous exercises so we can show that things from the past that they might have been concerned about never actually occurred,” Sucato said.
Concerns from the past typically have to do with the timing of the exercises in too close proximity with marine mammal migration and local commercial fishing seasons, Mosher said.
Mosher said that the Navy operates well offshore from state fisheries. The area where activities take place are so far offshore — at least 12 nautical miles and typically closer to 15 nautical miles — that “there is very little interaction with commercial fishing, commercial shipping traffic, or any other users,” he said.
That location also has less density of marine fish species, mammals and sea birds and avoids their primary location of habitation, he said.
Mosher also noted that due to comments and concerns from the public, Native tribes and resource agencies, the Navy has implemented additional mitigation.
“We have minimized any impacts that may be a result of the 2023 exercises and into the future,” he said.
Concerns still exist in 2023
During previous exercises, a number of organizations expressed concern about spring training period coinciding with marine mammal migration period. They include Homer’s Cook Inletkeeper, the Copper River Watershed Project, Prince William Soundkeeper, Eyak Preservation Council,West Coast Action Alliance, The Humane Society of the United States, Cetacean Society International, among others.
“The Navy will again execute their war games at the entrance of Cook Inlet just as our salmon and whales return,” Bridget Maryott, digital engagement lead at Cook Inletkeeper, told the Homer News via email.
“The Navy is forcing them to dodge artillery explosions, toxic pollutants, and deafening sonar. These additional stressors during a time when salmon fisheries are crashing and our beluga whales are facing extinction could have devastating impacts on the Cook Inlet ecosystem. We have repeatedly asked for these exercises to occur later in the year, but the Navy doesn’t seem to value the resources and livelihoods of Alaskans.”
According to an appendix in the EIS, exercise dates are based on a number of factors, to include weather conditions, safety of personnel and equipment, effectiveness of training, availability of forces, deployment schedules, maintenance periods, other exercise schedules within the Pacific region and, important environmental considerations.
Additional public comments and concerns can be found in the supplement.
Though the visit to Homer was canceled, Sucato and Mosher did also reach out to Homer Mayor Ken Castner and the Homer Port and Harbor.
“We spoke to them earlier; it was a good conversation. The impression I got was that there was wide understanding and thanks that we reached out to them. I don’t believe they have any concerns,” Sucato said.
Castner confirmed with Homer News that he and several other Homer city represenatives, including Harbor Master Bryan Hawkins, also talked to the Navy representatives last week.
The 2022 Gulf of Alaska Final Supplemental EIS/OEIS Documents can be found at: https://goaeis.com/. Previous EIS documents are located there for comparison, also.