Editor’s note: In the wake of Northern Edge 2019 in the Gulf of Alaska, The Cordova Times asked Cordova Mayor Clay Koplin for his observations on how these military exercises fit into the community. His lengthy responses to several questions are summarized below.
How did the presence of military forces in Cordova help, or not help, residents to better understand the military perspective, and how much opportunity did this give them to make their feelings known?
Koplin: There are three pieces of this question.
I spent the morning of May 20 with Admiral Gray of the Third fleet and his colleagues, explaining the history, opportunities, and challenges as a fishing community, and concerns with exercise timing.
Cordova is a very patriotic community, with many veterans of the several wars living here, and one of the highest per capita of killed in action of any Alaska community, so we have strong ties to the armed forces. Out of this year’s high school graduating class, three people enlisted in the Air Force, one in the Coast Guard and one in the Navy.
The signs along the bridges between the airport and town are dedicated to those killed in action in our wars.
I related the amazing artist community, entrepreneurship, and world class marketing and development of Cordova’s seafood. I also emphasized the strategic significance of seafood – high quality protein that can keep an army on its feet, and Cordova’s strategic importance in the central gulf and PWS.
Second, the admiral and staff walked the docks for much of the afternoon to talk with fishermen, whose response was overwhelmingly positive.
Once the fishermen realized that only two hours of sonar were deployed last year, and that small arms fire was the only live ordinance, they were very supportive. Finally, two Sierra class helicopters flew to the municipal air strip in Cordova on Tuesday. Approximately 200 residents showed up, mostly family with kids who were allowed to crawl in and around and all over the airships. The helicopters first did a SAR demonstration and dropped servicemen in the Eyak Lake (freezing cold) and then circled and flew back in, dropping rescue swimmers to swim over, secure the bodies, and hoist them into the helis for transport to safety. The admiral brought Baja Taco carry out to the air crews. They were very appreciative of the beauty of Cordova and warmth of the citizens.
On May 22, Koplin, Vice Mayor Melina Meyer, City Manager Alan Lanning, City Councilman Jeff Guard, and retired Coast Guardsman and Cordova Police Chief Mike Hicks flew to Anchorage. On May 23, they were flown to the carrier from Joint Base Elmendorf Richardson to the USS Theodore Roosevelt, where they were given an extensive briefing and observed aircraft takeoffs and landings and talked with crew. The visitors presented their military hosts with several gars of canned, smoked Copper River salmon on behalf of the community.
Did people feel that they were actually being listened to and their thoughts considered?
Feedback from the community has been overwhelmingly positive. On May 21, Admiral Gray and staff were at the Reluctant Fisherman at 7pm, to field questions and answer them. The community response to the respectful, direct answers to their questions was overwhelmingly positive, with a few of the more concerned citizens and opposition having a fairly neutral, but not entirely negative response.
The major argument seems to be the timing of these exercises, which coincide with the opener of the Copper River fishery, which is of great socioeconomic importance to Cordova. Do you feel any greater understanding was reached between residents and military officials, with both understanding the issues each presented?
Frankly, after addressing all of the questions, I did not feel that there were any good arguments against changing the timing of the exercises. In fact, the US military presence in the gulf during migrations helps NOAA and the ADF&G document the location, numbers, and behaviors of marine mammals and other observed species to help learn from them, and their presence acts as a deterrent to illegal foreign fishing fleets like the Chinese vessel that took over 80,000 chum salmon in a five-mile long net last season. I think the one-on-one with fishermen and community members that I observed helped the lights come on for Cordova in that these are really minimally invasive operations over a huge stretch of ocean, over 10 times the size of Prince William Sound, and that observations and logging of wildlife patterns to assist resource managers and protection from other threats like oil spills, illegal foreign fishing, etc. more than offset the negatives.
Was there any discussion of how things might be different for NE21?
Yes, there was discussion of bringing a smaller vessel along that could come to Cordova. There was talk of continued transparency and outreach. Admiral Gray and team may come back for Salmon Jam and host a small outreach and recruiting booth at Salmon Jam.
Were you able to get any promise of future commitment for military spending in Cordova for such exercises in the future?
They genuinely enjoyed their engagement with Cordova, and I think it likely that the engagement will increase, not decrease next year, and that there will be more presence and spending in Cordova.
What more can military officials do in the future to lessen the controversy?
I think it is hard to replace the one-on-one, and the most positive aspect of the entire week was Admiral Gray listening and communicating directly with fishermen on the docks. For me and city leaders, I think it was a good window into what they do and the high standards at which they do it. In general, I am not opposed to the timing of the exercises and given the current global muscle flexing of Russia, China, and others, am at least neutral if not positive to a spring presence — better our own Navy than illegal fishing fleets.