Alaska’s senior U.S. senator is intervening in a growing controversy in Cordova.
The U.S. Navy is planning an exercise in the Gulf of Alaska next month, but fishermen are concerned it could put their livelihoods on the line. Those frustrations came to a head Saturday, when more than 100 boats demonstrated in the Gulf. The protestors say the Navy training is risking damage to marine life and sensitive ecosystems.
Their voices have now caught the attention of Sen. Lisa Murkowski.
“One of things that I’ve heard from people is that, well, we’ve had a chance to ask our questions but we really haven’t been satisfied with the answers,” said Murkowski. “That’s not acceptable, so let’s figure out how we make sure these issues, these concerns are addressed.”
Those concerns include the threat sonar poses to migrating whales and young salmon starting their return journey to spawning grounds. One of the protest organizers, Emily Stolarcyk, works with the Eyak Preservation Council and has been trying to raise awareness about what she sees as a serious issue.
“We have the most economically valuable and sustainable fisheries left in the United States here,” she said. “We need to take care of them, so turning the other cheek on the Navy’s activities is just not going to happen.”
The Navy has been training in the Gulf for decades, but Stolarcyk says there hasn’t been any investigation into the longterm impact.
“This is uncharted waters, and we wouldn’t have these concerns if the Navy had started with adequate information, but the research wasn’t done,” she said.
The Navy has done an environmental impact study looking at a wide range of training activities, not all of which will be conducted this year. The exercise, called Northern Edge, will involve three destroyers, one submarine, 200 aircraft and 6,000 personnel.
It’s designed to allow the Navy, Air Force and the Army practice working together.
“We’re not sinking anything or dropping bombs, there won’t be an aircraft carrier so the studies examine the wide range of activities that might be permissible without harming the environment,” said Alaska Command chief of plans Capt. Raymond J. Hesser. “And we’re not even coming close to that this year.”
Hesser says the training planners at Alaskan Command and the Navy work hard to minimize its impact on wildlife and on the nearby communities.
“This exercise is planned by people who live in Alaska and have lived in Alaska for a long time and understand what’s going on in the Gulf of Alaska,” he said.
Murkowski says she’s working to bring the two sides together but says the people of Cordova are appropriately concerned about the Navy’s plans.
“It’s important to them that they have an opportunity to train,” said Murkowski. “We understand that, but again, it can’t be at the expense of the fisheries that are so critical to the region.”
The training is scheduled to begin in three weeks. Cordova residents have asked that the exercise be moved further offshore and to a later date during a less critical season.