War Games Open Fire in Gulf of Alaska
Eco-Effects of Sonar Arrays and Gunnery Unclear Even in Scaled Back Exercises
Washington, DC — Starting today and for the next dozen days, the U.S. military will wage simulated war in the Gulf of Alaska, according to documents posted today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). Dubbed “Northern Edge,” the training exercises will continue through June 26th and involve live shelling, numerous surface explosions, aerial drops and intensive deployment of active mid-frequency sonar systems linked to acoustic damage and stranding events in marine mammals.
Covering some 40,000 square miles of the northern Gulf of Alaska, just south of Prince William Sound and east of the Kenai Peninsula and Kodiak Island, these exercises are considerably less extensive than what was outlined in earlier plans. They will, however, entail sizable marine disruptions, including wide use of mid-frequency Navy sonar known to adversely affect marine mammals. The Navy’s latest briefing also states that the exercise will involve discharge of 1,600 high-impact 5-inch shells, with 45 sea surface high-explosive detonations, as well as sinking floating targets and discharge of inert but often hazardous materials.
Despite the Navy’s mitigation plan, 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. While the Navy accepted two recommendations from the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration to minimize these adverse impacts, it 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.
“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,” contended Rick Steiner, a retired University of Alaska professor and PEER board member, who obtained the documents under the Freedom of Information Act. “The Navy should also dial-down its plans for five years of expanded Gulf of Alaska war games starting next year.”
In addition, the Navy rejected Steiner’s suggestion that it accommodate independent scientific observers during the exercises to confirm effectiveness of its mitigation measures. The Navy objects to independent observers, asserting they are not necessary, and would present unspecified “security” concerns.
“The Navy believes that protecting the marine environment is an inconvenience external to its mission,” stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, 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.”