Military representatives gave a presentation on the 2019 Northern Edge training exercises during a Kodiak City Council work session Tuesday in an attempt to quell public concern over the impacts of the military activity to ecosystems in the Gulf of Alaska.
Northern Edge is a biennial military training exercise that takes place in the Gulf of Alaska in the spring. It began in 1975 and in previous years has taken place in June. This year, as it did in 2017, it will take place over two weeks in May.
The concerns of Kodiak residents voiced at the work session were identical to those that the residents of various coastal communities in the GoA have brought up in the past: that military activities may be impacting marine species and ecosystems; and the timing of the training, which they argue should be taking place in the fall instead to mitigate impacts to species that are highly active in the Spring and Summer months.
During public comments, Kodiakan Stacy Studebaker said that she felt like she was in the movie Groundhog Day, due to the cyclical nature of public concern surrounding Northern Edge
“Over and over again, you’ve said that you want to work with our coastal communities,” Studebaker said. “You take our comments and say you will consider them — and nothing changes.”
Studebaker finished her comment with a list of questions, including: “How many hours of sonar-use will there be?” and “How many more bombs and munitions will be expended this year over last?”
Tom Lance, natural resources director with the Sun’aq Tribe of Kodiak, explained that his role is to be “vigilant and protect Tribal resources.” He pointed out that, although the military has done outreach to the Tribe, the cumulative effects of various activities in the GoA may not have been taken into account.
“Our Tribal resources are the same that built the foundation of, and still hold up, the Kodiak community,” Lance said. “The things that we see in the Gulf right now, with climate change and things that are out of our control, added to what is already going on with the shipping, fishing and the use of the area for military training exercises –– both with Northern Edge and with the Alaska Aerospace Corporation –– we need to be mindful that we may have cumulative impacts taking place that we don’t know about.
“Last time I was here to talk about Northern Edge, I asked that we do a better job of researching the resources out there to ensure that you’re not damaging the foundation of our economy and our culture here.”
The Northern Edge 2019 presentation began with Navy Senior Chief Brandon Raile from the Alaskan Command Public Affairs Office at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson explaining why the exercise takes place in the GoA. He spoke about the strategic importance of Alaska.
“Alaska is kind of the air crossroads of the world,” Raile said. “From Alaska, we’re able to get anywhere in the Northern Hemisphere within nine hours.”
Raile went on to say that, over the past few years, the military has observed the break-up of increasing amounts of sea-ice, which is opening up previously unavailable maritime passages
“With the opening of those, we’re seeing a lot of increased activity from our country’s nearby adversaries,” said Raile, adding that foreign military installations in the Arctic heighten the importance of Northern Edge.
An overview of the 2019 exercises was then provided by Col. Barley Baldwin, director of strategy, plans and programs with Pacific Air Forces. According to Baldwin, while the Alaskan Command used to be the agency in charge of Northern Edge, PAF recently became the organization in charge.
“It is a very air-centric exercise. So while we focus a lot on what we’re doing in the GoA at events like this, the vast majority of what we’re doing for the exercise happens not in the GoA, it happens with airplanes in other locations,” he said.
While Baldwin noted that poor weather has often presented issues in the past, he said that safety is one of the main reasons why Northern Edge is conducted in the spring.
“Safety is one of the reasons we don’t get into exercising at times when the seas are typically rougher,” Baldwin said. “The number of aircraft we’d be putting out over the GoA for the handful of times we go there would be a giant strain.”
Another major factor is coordinating the various agencies and organizations that take part in Northern Edge.
“Unfortunately, getting as many entities that are involved in this exercise to be available in a two week window is a giant shell game,” he said. “Right now, the best availability for the forces happens to be this two-week period in May.”
According to Baldwin, this year’s exercises will be “very similar in size and scope” to those conducted in 2017. They will involve approximately 6,000 personnel, 175 fixed-wing aircraft and at least three Naval vessels. Some of the specific details of the exercises –– the level of sonar-use, for example –– remained undisclosed to the public.
“We are expecting a carrier strike group,” Baldwin said. “That is: an aircraft carrier and two-to-three gray-hulled ships –– destroyer or cruiser types, similar to what came up last time. You’ll see they’re going to be kind of confined to one area. They’re not doing 24-hour-ops. Most of the aircraft that are taking off from the carrier are actually going up to the JPARC (Joint Pacific Alaska Range Complex), up by Fairbanks.”
Baldwin said the periods of highest activity are mornings, adding that activities will only take place in the GoA two mornings, with the rest happening in the JPARC area.
All at-sea Navy training will occur within a 42,146 square nautical mile area referred to as the Gulf of Alaska Temporary Maritime Activities Area. Kodiak is 190 NM from the center of this area and 45 NM from its nearest outer boundary.
According to Baldwin, most of the Northern Edge’s at-sea activities occur “far offshore” toward the center of the TMAA. There will be no restrictions placed on the navigation of civilian vessels in this area, including fishing vessels and commercial shipping vessels.
“We are expecting to do some port visits,” Baldwin said. Though he added, “Nothing is confirmed. And just like anything –– with the carrier … there’s a chance that that doesn’t show up either.”
John Mosher, from the U.S. Navy Pacific Fleet’s Environmental Readiness Division, then provided a brief overview of some of the protective measures that the military will take to mitigate impacts to the environment. These measures were developed in coordination with staff from the National Marine Fisheries Service. Additionally, Mosher said that many of them were based on input from residents of Alaska communities and members of Alaska Native Tribes.
Among these are minimizing the use of live explosives during weapons training, including designating certain areas where explosives can’t be used.
“A very good example of this is the Portlock Bank mitigation. This is something that was implemented for the exercise just in advance of the 2017 exercise,” Mosher said. “That’s an area that was identified and discussed as an important groundfish habitat, so an area where a lot of fishing occurs. So it was agreed to that that is an area that none of the weapons training with explosives would occur.”
According to Mosher, no marine mammal strandings have been associated with Navy training in the Gulf of Alaska and no Navy ship strikes of marine mammals have occurred. Mosher also addressed the frequently voiced concern over the impacts of sonar on various marine species.
“Mid-frequency sonar is not heard by shellfish and is not heard by most fish species, specifically salmon and groundfish,” Mosher said. “They don’t hear the frequency of sonar that we use in the exercise up here, so it has no effect on them. There have been studies done, that we reference in these documents to state that. It’s not the Navy just saying this without science to back-up our statements.”
With regard to the effects of sonar on marine mammals, Mosher said that, due to the minimal use of sonar “exposure to marine mammals is felt to be minimal” though added “that’s not to say there’s no effect.”
Mosher also broke down some of the marine monitoring and research programs that the military is engaged in, some of which are specifically oriented around the potential impacts of Northern Edge. He noted that, since 2009, the Navy has contributed roughly $3.5 million to marine species monitoring projects in the Gulf of Alaska.
“This is important for us to understand how we interact with marine species and marine environment and how we can minimize our effects,” Mosher said. “It also helps all the other users understand where the species are, and how they interact too. So it’s science that’s transferable.”
Following the presentation, the council were provided an opportunity to ask questions. A number of council members and the mayor proceeded to echo the public’s sentiment, primarily asking representatives why the timing of exercise can’t be moved to the fall.
“I think, in general, coastal Alaska appreciates the military and what it brings,” council member John Whiddon said. “But what I hear over and over again is the repeated request to find a different time frame to do this. I think it feels like it’s landing on deaf ears … if you would spend any time looking at weather patterns, you’d understand that in September, for example, the weather’s not radically worse than it is in May.
“I think what folks would like to hear is some flexibility on this,” said Whiddon, asking for “sensitivity to the requests of the communities that are here 365 days a year and whose livelihoods depend on what comes out of the ocean.”
City Mayor Pat Branson followed this by citing a 2016 letter sent by Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) to the Secretary of the Navy, in which she urged the Navy to “proactively work with stakeholders” in the planning of Northern Edge. Murkowski specifically touched on the request to change the timing of the games in that letter.
“During the months of July and August I received over a hundred letters from Alaskans concerned about the timing and impact of Northern Edge 2017,” Murkowski wrote. “I strongly you to direct the Commander, Pacific Fleet, in conjunction with his partners at Alaskan Command, to reengage with stakeholders in the communities adjacent to Northern Edge 2017 with all deliberate speed.”
Mosher responded that the concerns are being “risen to the highest levels of the Department of Defense and the Navy.” Baldwin added that a change to the timing may come soon, but emphasised the complexity of organizing the training. He described the United States Indo-Pacific Command, which runs the exercise, as similar to “a giant machine with lots of places where they’re trying to stack things.”
“We hopefully have a window to re-address that soon,” he said. “INDOPACOM is kind of opening their books to see where they’ve got everything stacked. When you’ve got that schedule, you’re looking at a couple of fiscal years down the road.
“There’s potential for movement, but they’re not there yet. I don’t know if 2021 would be on the table, but they are relooking at the schedule for all of the big exercises over the next year.”
Navy and NMFS documents relating to Northern Edge are available at goaeis.com. The Navy will have a Navy Environmental Programs and Exercise Northern Edge outreach booth at the ComFish Trade Show to answer further questions from public.