A Navy training exercise planned in the Gulf of Alaska has sparked heated opposition in a small commercial fishing town nearby whose residents say the drills are taking place in the critical habitat of breeding and migratory marine life.
Migrating salmon and other marine animals will be harmed by explosions, sonar and up to 352,000 pounds of debris that includes toxic materials like mercury, lead and cyanide, said Emily Stolarcyk, program manager for the Eyak Preservation Council. The local nonprofit group is planning to protest the drills by surrounding the fuel dock in the town of Cordova with their boats on Saturday.
The exercises are scheduled to take place between June 15 and June 26, with the nearest point of land 12 miles away. It's part of the multi-branch Northern Edge exercises that also will include land training.
But it's the ocean part of the drills that worries opponents, including the Cordova City Council, which opposes the plan. The city wants the Navy to move the training 200 nautical miles offshore and reschedule it to mid-September after salmon have migrated. Military officials said the June schedule offers optimal conditions.
"We're looking at the cleanest and most pristine, full-of-life body of water we have left," Stolarcyk said. "It's a very pure food source that feeds a lot of people and provides a lot of jobs. And there's absolutely no reason to do the training here."
Military officials with the Alaskan Command say the Navy has conducted training in the area for decades without major environmental harm and that opponents are focusing on the extreme limits of what would be allowed as far as environmental impact. Air Force Capt. Anastasia Wasem said there is no designated endangered species habitat in the exercise zone, whose northern border is about 70 miles from Cordova.
Impacts to marine mammals would not be significant, Wasem said. She said salmon and other fish species would not be affected, given the relatively limited amount of activity and short exercise durations planned for a vast area. She said the National Marine Fisheries Service assessed impacts to fish, including salmon.
"Environmental protection is an integral part of the exercise," said in an email to The Associated Press.
As for delaying and relocating the Navy exercises, the current schedule takes into account when the weather is ideal for training, Wasem said.
That's really poor timing, said Cordova City Council member Kristin Carpenter. She plans to be among those protesting this weekend.
Carpenter said the community of 2,300 people is feeling the risk personally, having gone through the fallout from the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill about 45 miles southeast of Cordova. The tanker spilled 11 million gallons of crude — a staggering blow for an area so reliant on commercial fishing, particularly for herring, the levels of which have plummeted several years after the spill and have yet to return to normal. It took years for salmon numbers to rebound.
"It's pretty irresponsible adding more toxics to our marine environment when we know how important it is to support fisheries," Carpenter said.
Alaska Dispatch Publishing