Navy releases latest plans for Northern Edge 2023

Final decision on exercises to come in a minimum of 30 days

A final document on the U.S. Navy’s plans for 2023 training exercises in the Gulf of Alaska has been released, for public review, with the Navy saying they will wait a minimum of 30 days after publication before making a final decision on which action alternative to implement.

The document includes consideration of comments made during public comment periods in 2020 and 2021 and no additional public comment periods are anticipated at this time. Still new and different comments than those previously received would be considered, said Julianne Stanford, environmental public affairs specialist with the Navy Region Northwest.

The Navy released its final supplemental environmental impact statement/overseas environmental impact statement (EIS/OEIS), which proposes a greatly expanded area stretching to south of Dutch Harbor, on Friday, Sept. 2. It is available online at www.GOAEIS.com.

Army, Air Force and Marine Corps personnel also participate in these biennial exercises.

The 30-day wait period, which ends on Oct. 3, is not intended to be a comment period but allows for review of the final SEIS/OEIS, changes to the analysis and responses to comments submitted on the draft SEIS/OEIS and supplement to the draft SEIS/OEIS, Stanford said.

The proposed activities include a revised Gulf of Alaska study area which would include no new or increased levels of training activities. There would be no increase in the number of vessels, underway steaming hours or aircraft events, although about 70% of training would still occur in that area. To protect marine species and biologically important habitat, use of explosives from sea surface up to 10,000 feet altitude would be prohibited in that area, the document said.

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Proposed activities under the preferred alternative include use of active sound navigation and ranging, known as sonar, in the Gulf of Alaska and weapon systems that may use non-explosive or explosive munitions at sea. The Navy would, under that alternative, continue to implement mitigation measures to avoid or reduce potential impacts on marine species and the environment from such activities, including implementation of a new mitigation area within the continental shelf and slope of this Temporary Maritime Activities Area (TMAA), the Navy said.

In past years the Navy has noted that while a wide range of activities are authorized that they have not necessarily been used during training exercises.

“As in the 2011 EIS/OEIS and the 2016 Supplemental EIS/OEIS, the Navy analyzes for and is seeking regulatory authorizations to allow for training activities utilizing a number of different sonar and weapons systems in this Supplemental EIS/OEIS,” said Stanford. “Not all sonar or weapons systems are required for use during every exercise, but the Navy must conservatively address all equipment that could potentially be used in its analysis. 
“Active sonar systems included in the Supplemental EIS/OEIS are primarily sonars deployed from either ships or aircraft for the purpose of detecting and locating hostile submarines. Other sonar systems included may be used to locate other underwater objects, such as mines, or as a measure to protect
ships from enemy torpedoes,” Stanford said. “Weapons included in the Supplemental EIS/OEIS that may potentially be used during training include gunnery systems, missiles, and bombs. Most often
each of these have been utilized with non-explosive practice munitions, but live explosives may be used in certain areas if training requirements dictate. No use of underwater explosives is proposed.”

The EIS/OEI also proposes expanding the overall military exercise area by thousands of square miles, in the Western Maneuver Area (WMA) to an area south of Dutch Harbor, for vessel maneuvering and aircraft training.  The exception would be non-explosive gunnery activities which would only include training with non-explosive practice munitions in the WMA

Northern Edge exercises, which occur in the Gulf of Alaska just before the start of the Copper River sockeye salmon fishery in Prince William Sound, have been controversial for years.

Critics from coastal communities, commercial and subsistence fish harvesters and Alaska Native groups contend that these activities are disruptive to fish and marine mammals at times when they are migrating and breeding in the Gulf.

The Navy says it takes steps to mitigate any negative impacts to fish and other wildlife.

The document notes that marine fish and their habitat in the Gulf of Alaska study area will continue to be threatened by commercial fishing pollution, shipping, underwater noise, oil and gas development, disease and climate change, and that many of these issues are expected to increase in the future. The incremental contribution of the proposed location to cumulative impacts on fish populations and their habitat would be low, the document said.

The Navy said completion of the final supplemental EIS/OEIS comes after years of research, analysis, stakeholder and tribal engagement and public involvement. Changes made in this document reflect the Navy’s consideration of all substantive comments received during public scoping in 2020 and public comment periods in 2021 and 2022, and information provided during ongoing regulatory consultation processes, Stanford said.

Further questions and comments regarding these military exercises can be submitted in writing to Naval Facilities Engineering Systems Command Northwest, Attention: GOA Supplemental EIS/OEIS Project Manager, 1101 Tautog Circle, Suite 203, Silverdale, WA 98315-1101.

Northern Edge exercises, which began in 1993, have a history extended back to the Jack Frost exercises in the 1970s, sponsored by the Alaskan Command, which focused on joint operations and training in an Arctic environment.