Commentary: Northern Edge military trainings should not be in GOA in May

By Skye Steritz and Carol Hoover
For The Cordova Times

The Eyak Preservation Council is strongly requesting that the Navy employ the precautionary principle regarding all aspects of the Northern Edge military trainings in the GOA. The precautionary principle “has four central components: taking preventive action in the face of uncertainty; shifting the burden of proof to the proponents of an activity; exploring a wide range of alternatives to possibly harmful actions; and increasing public participation in decision making”.

EPC also requests that the Navy analyses employ the precautionary principle in the absence of adequate information. Number one: do not conduct active sonar in your trainings. There is substantial evidence of mid-frequency active active sonar physically harming and causing strandings of beaked whales as well as altering foraging and feeding behaviors in endangered sperm whales. There has been very little empirical, peer-reviewed studies on the impacts of mid-frequency active active sonar on fish. These impacts deserve more critical investigation in the upcoming Supplemental Draft Environmental Impact Statement (SDEIS).

Alternatives

There are less destructive action alternatives that can meet the need of fleet readiness. Conducting Northern Edge in May is one of the worst possible times because of the abundances of marine animals and fish in the Gulf during spring and the fact that it is a critical reproductive period for dozens of species. EPC demands that the Navy look seriously at alternative timings, and also at alternative locations, further offshore and away from the shelf break.

We request that the Navy study alternative sites that are further offshore and away from high concentrations of fish and whales. The high density of whales on and inside the shelf break led Alaskan researchers to the conclusion that conducting Northern Edge “far outside of shelf break” would be less ecologically damaging.

If the exercises must be done in the Gulf of Alaska, we request a return to pre-2010 training levels. The Navy SDEIS must analyze in detail the possibility of meeting the purpose and need of these training exercises without using anti-submarine warfare activities and without using active mid-frequency sonar.

Northern Edge exercises must eliminate the use of chaff, plastics, and all toxic materials that would simply be left on the seafloor or suspended in the water column.

The action alternatives stipulated above are logical considering the unparalleled stress animals in the Gulf of Alaska are currently facing due to climate change. Remember, these are legally our marine resources (as Alaskan citizens) that are held in trust by the federal government. Analyses in the SDEIS need to be expanded in regards to investigation of lower trophic level species, vulnerability of seamounts, and impacts of anti-submarine warfare exercises on all threatened or declining populations. Threatened and endangered species in the GOA include: bearded seal, beluga whale, blue whale, bocaccio, bowhead whale, Chinook salmon, chum salmon, coho salmon, eulachon, fin whale, gray whale, green sturgeon, Guadalupe fur seal, humpback whale, killer whale, leatherback turtle, North Pacific right whale, ringed seal, sei whale, sockeye salmon, sperm whale, steelhead trout, Steller sea long and yelloweye rockfish. The Navy must also take a hard look at those which are not yet listed as threatened or endangered, but species which Alaskan scientists are witnessing rapid decline of, including cod and herring. The sac roe herring fishery in Sitka and the GOA cod fishery have been declared closed for 2020; this is economically devastating.

To minimize stress on fisheries, trainings should return to more conservative, pre-2010 levels, or completely out of the GOA. Please include in the DSEIS thorough analyses of potential impacts of using active sonar, SINK-EX, live ammunition and torpedoes on plankton, the physiology and behavior of the commonly present fish species and of beaked whales, right whales and Stellar sea lions. If you do not have adequate scientific data and explicit information on the impacts, then we ask that the Navy refrain from these activities.

Beaked whale research studies have demonstrated that standings have occurred as a direct result of mid-frequency active sonar (MFAS). The latest studies by Fernandez et al., 2015, have led to the Spanish government outlawing the use of MFAS surrounding the Canary Islands. 

It is unacceptable that the U.S. military, with this knowledge of the direct connection between MFAS and beaked whale strandings, would continue to employ this technology in an area where three different species of beaked whales are present.

We ask the Navy to reduce negative impacts to a system full of marine life that is already in peril.


Skye Steritz is the program manager and Carol Hoover is the interim executive director of the Eyak Preservation Council.