Dear US Navy: You can do better than summer war games in Gulf of Alaska

The U.S. Navy began its Northern Edge war games on June 15 in the Gulf of Alaska. The public is rightfully concerned about possible harm to our marine mammals, our fish and wildlife populations and extraordinary coastal ecosystems here in the world's richest waters.

Does the Navy know what it's doing? To assess the summer marine mammal populations in the Gulf of Alaska — and to calculate how many it was likely to harm—the Navy performed only 10 days of transects across a 42,000-square-mile area -- in the month of April. That's like trying to calculate the number of commercial fishing, sportfishing and recreational vessels running around in Alaskan waters in the summertime by counting the number you might find in Cook Inlet in the week before income tax returns are due.

In order to protect essential fish habitat during Northern Edge, government agencies gave the Navy some conservation recommendations to comply with, and the Navy's response was basically "No, no, maybe and no."

For example, why doesn't the Navy conduct the exercises outside of summer when there would be less chance of harassing and killing marine mammals and other fish and wildlife so busy in the Gulf this time of year?

In the June 4 Alaska Dispatch News, Air Force spokesperson Capt. Anastasia Wasem said 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."

It should be noted that Northern Edge used to be conducted in winter months; indeed one of the first Northern Edge exercises ever was March 1994.

Wasem also said the public's fears are misplaced: "Overall, the exercise is exactly the same as it's been for the past -- how long have we been doing this? -- The past 11 years -- It is business as usual as far as Northern Edge is concerned."


Except, the Navy hasn't conducted the war games since 2011. And this year the Navy has been planning for the wide-scale use of active sonar, apparently a first for Northern Edge (see * below). The extremely loud underwater noise from active sonar propagates for hundreds of miles in the ocean has been implicated in whale strandings around the world, and may put salmon and other fish at risk. While the Navy says, "Sonar doesn't harm fish," its own environmental impact statement says it doesn't know much, and one of its Northern Edge scientists admits herring could be an exception.

And scientist Michael Stocker, a bio-acoustician and founder of Ocean Conservation Research — one of the foremost point organizations tracking the Navy's longstanding practices — told me, "These various sonars could have behavioral impacts on migration, elevated stress levels, compromised schooling and breeding success, and even hearing compromise; although we don't know because nobody has done any systematic studies."

This year's games allow for 42 days of activities, broken into sections of 21 consecutive days, up from 14 days allowed in previous Northern Edge exercises, along with a commensurate increase in allowable weaponry use and waste disposal. As reported in the Alaska Dispatch News, "The EIS and record of decision allow up to 352,000 pounds of waste, mostly naval gun shells or expended small-arms rounds, to be expelled, compared to the cap of 76,200 pounds in previous Northern Edge exercises. Of the expelled wastes, up to 2.9 percent would be hazardous materials like cyanide and heavy metals ..."

The Navy in the 11th hour now tells us it is scaling back its exercises scheduled for this summer -- and its toxic litter will fall well under those limits -- but it won't allow independent scientific observers because they are "not necessary" and would present "security" concerns.

Despite the Navy's mitigation plans, including marine mammal lookouts and clearance zones, the Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement concedes the exercises could result in 182,000 impacts ("takes") to marine mammals, causing behavioral effects and some permanent injuries or deaths. And the Navy rejected NOAA recommendations to:

• Monitor the effects of expended materials;
• Catalog the underwater noise levels created by the exercise; and
• Assess and report on the amount of fish mortality caused.

In a Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) press release on June 15, Rick Steiner, a retired University of Alaska professor and PEER board member, said: "The Navy should confine its live-fire and active sonar exercises far offshore and to the winter months in order to minimize risks to marine mammals and the coastal ecosystem. ... The Navy should also dial-down its plans for five years of expanded Gulf of Alaska war games starting next year."

"The Navy believes that protecting the marine environment is an inconvenience external to its mission," stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch in the same release, noting that these events reinforce the argument for creating marine sanctuaries or monuments in the most sensitive Alaskan waters. "The Navy's unwillingness to either directly monitor, or let others monitor, the amount of marine carnage it will create indicates a problematic 'shoot-first-but ask-no-questions-later' attitude."

The Navy likes to talk about its commitment to the environment and about how it supports and funds a lot of science, but our Navy, bless its heart, (with just its active sonar alone) has a well-documented habit of vandalizing the world's oceans, and a cavalier approach to science that yields results that are shoddy, obfuscatory and disingenuous. And Stocker told me, "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."

Dear Navy, we are the friend of your soul and therefore, the enemy of your behavior. You can do better. In future years, please respect the Gulf and our precious fish and wildlife and human communities. Please move your exercises 200 nautical miles offshore and don't conduct them in summertime when so much of the rest of creation is also exercising in the Gulf.

David Lynn Grimes, an artist, was formerly a commercial salmon and herring fisherman in Bristol Bay, Prince William Sound and the Copper River.

The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, e-mail commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.

David Grimes

David Lynn Grimes, an artist, was formerly a commercial salmon and herring fisherman in Bristol Bay, Prince William Sound and the Copper River.