Tribal leaders and commercial fishermen in Kodiak are protesting military exercises planned for the Gulf of Alaska, saying they're concerned about damage to salmon, crabs and other marine life.
Dozens of fishing boats and kayaks set out in the Port of Kodiak on Saturday while protesters set off smoke bombs and flares.
Alaska's largest military exercise this year is scheduled to begin in June on land and at sea and is meant to prepare joint forces to respond to crises in the South Pacific.
Tribal members say they aren't against the military, but they're hoping to meet with the Department of Defense about finding a different underwater location for the training.
"The ocean is like our blood," said Tom Lance, natural resources director for the Sun'aq tribe of Kodiak. "If we contaminate it, we will get sick."
The exercises are planned to take place in an area that begins about 24 miles from the Kenai Peninsula. The zone extends into the Gulf of Alaska to a midpoint about 140 miles offshore and continues beyond. The training area was designed to avoid critical habitats, and although it doesn't avoid all fish and marine mammal habitats, the activities will be infrequent and widely dispersed throughout the area, according to the Alaskan Command.
"Alaska is special, and we certainly want to keep it that way," said Anastasia Wasem, spokeswoman for the Alaskan Command. "And we would not be doing this exercise if we thought it was going to harm the environment."
But environmental groups and commercial fishermen are concerned that sonar and undersea explosions will disrupt migrating salmon, rock fish, halibut and other creatures.
Salmon are important not only for food and livelihoods, but also as a part of cultural traditions, said Sophie Frets, chairwoman of the Sun'aq tribe, who said members of the tribe make art using salmon skin.
"Fish have been part of our ancestors' diet for as long as we go back," Frets said. "We lost a lot of our culture, so as we worked so hard to regain it back, we really are wanting to continue and not lose any ground."
A similar protest was held in Cordova earlier this month.
"It will be nothing short of a miracle to stop it, but we are making a difference," Frets said. "This is not in vain. You have to speak to be heard."