Several coastal communities, including Kodiak, Cordova, and Homer, have held both land-based and fishing boat flotilla protests over the last few weeks to voice their concerns about planned Navy and joint military training exercises in the Gulf of Alaska.
Dozens of local residents ignored the strong winds, grey skies, and drizzle to gather around the mariners’ memorial on the Homer spit.
Mavis Muller is standing in a group of people holding signs reading “Not in our fish basket,” “Whales don’t have earplugs,” and “Navy WTF.”
“We’re passionate about this fight for the protection and defense of habitat and our fisheries and cultures and lives and livelihoods that depend on the water. This affects all of us, this issue,” says Muller.
Jess Tenhoff is struggling with a large paper sign against the wind that reads Nurture, Not Navy.
“Well, I think the Navy could nurture,” says Tenhoff. “Personally, I would like it if the Navy would take the lead in nurturing, which it seems like they should do, considering that they make their living off the ocean. They should be the ones most concerned and I’m hoping that they are and that we just need to make clear to them that this needs to be really, carefully thought through.”
She’s referring to a series of planned training exercises in the Gulf of Alaska by the Navy. Last fall, the comment period closed on a draft Environmental Impact Statement or EIS for the next phase of the training starting in 2016. In the EIS, the Navy outlined the type of activities that could potentially have an effect on marine life. They included underwater explosions, simulated weapons fire, high ship and aircraft traffic, and sonar.
That’s caused a lot of concern for Gulf residents like Tenhoff who depend on fish stocks and the ocean for their livelihood and recreation.
“We need to be careful, we need to take care, we need to be conscious about our decisions concerning the resources that are ours as Alaskans to protect. It’s kind of our responsibility to get out there and do it,” says Tenhoff.
The Navy’s operations are related to the joint training called Northern Edge that brings together other branches of the military. It began in the early 90s and has roots in projects like Jack Frost and Brim Frost dating to the 1970s.
U.S. Air Force Captain Anastasia Wasem is the public affairs director for Northern Edge.
“We’re aware of the protests and we’ve even scheduled several public meetings to help alleviate the concerns of people in those areas,” says Wasem.
She says representatives from Alaskan Command and other organizations are traveling to Cordova and Kodiak to meet with residents and that they are sensitive to concerns.
“And if the public has concerns about the exercises, we certainly want them to be able to voice those concerns and be able to contact us. My office is always more than happy to speak with anybody about Northern Edge,” says Wasem.
Several protestors say they appreciate the ability to offer comments but are concerned they aren’t having any effect.
Back near the shore, Mavis Muller is looking out at the boats, some of which are carrying enormous handmade signs.
Muller, who painted the signs, says she knows all too well that protests for environmental protection and conservation often span years and have results that are hard to quantify. The victories she’s seen have been few and far between.
“It could be sort of like, oh really, 30 years later, we’re still saying the same thing or it could be that we are galvanizing a commitment. This fight is not going away. We are not naïve enough to think this fight is going to go away. It is never ending. This is a reminder to us that we are still fighting and we will continue to fight,” says Muller.
But all they’re asking for right now, says Muller, is that the military seriously consider its trainings in the Gulf of Alaska and not purposefully take part in activities that could harm this sensitive ecosystem.