After requests from Gulf of Alaska communities that the U.S. Military reschedule or cancel its Northern Edge exercises in the Gulf, officials recently announced they’ll go ahead and hold the training this spring.
Northern Edge involves all five branches of the military and takes place every other year. Some tribes, communities, and conservation groups are worried the exercises, which can use live munitions and sonar, could harm marine life.
Military officials say environmental studies show the exercises cause little to no harm.
Captain Bryant Davis, Director of Public Affairs for Alaska Command, says the biggest reason they plan to hold the exercises in May, like usual, is weather and the safety of participants.
“The biggest driver for that is really the sea states in the Gulf of Alaska,” said Davis. “As I mentioned, this is really an aerial exercise, but we do have aircraft that will be flying over the Gulf of Alaska and, if one of those pilots or an air crew member had to eject or bail out of their airplane, it really complicates the recovery operations if sea states are out of a specific range.”
Davis says that the majority of the exercises take place in interior Alaska. The boundary of the Gulf portion of the exercises is located, Davis says, 24 nautical miles from Seward, 45 nautical miles from Kodiak, and 80 nautical miles from Cordova, with the center about 190 nautical miles from Kodiak.
He adds that the military has done extensive environmental studies that indicate the training has little to no impact on fishing and marine mammals.
Over the past few years, the number of Alaska communities, tribes, and preservation groups opposed to the exercises has grown. Some want them rescheduled for fall, when they believe they would less affect sea life.
Including the Sun’aq tribe in Kodiak. Tom Lance, the tribe’s Natural Resources Director says they are still concerned.
“I think that the problem is that they don’t have and we don’t have enough sound science to make a good decision,” said Lance. “And today, it seems to be that we are at a tipping point with our environmental conditions in the ocean and we should err on the side of caution and not do something that might unintentionally impact our marine resources.”
In 2015, Sun’aq tribe sent the military a list of demands for continuing the exercises in the Gulf. Lance says they only adopted one: excluding use of ordnance on Portlock Bank, important fishing grounds east of Kodiak Island. Others include: change of timing, no sonar, no ordnance, and cleaning up materials associated with exercises, among others.
A number of other tribes have also opposed the exercises. The Eyak Preservation Council, a non-profit group based in Cordova, opposes it, as does the City of Cordova.
In 2017, the Kodiak Island Borough passed a resolution in support of changing the timing of the event to after September.
That same year, Senator Lisa Murkowski got involved and wrote a letter to admirals in the U.S. Navy requesting that they give serious thought to conducting the exercises in the fall rather than in the spring, and do further scientific research.
Military officials say they’re still in the planning stages and can only confirm that they’re scheduled for May.
In addition, officials say they are planning outreach to coastal communities about Northern Edge this fall and spring.