The Navy got the green light for Northern Edge 17, just days before the training exercise is scheduled to start.

Northern Edge is scheduled to start May 1. It involves the Navy, Army, Air Force and Marines, training in the Gulf of Alaska and areas of the Interior.

The National Marine Fisheries Service issued two permits the Navy needed to go ahead with the exercise. The Navy also announced its Record of Decision about a recent Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement. The Navy has to issue an EIS every five years, looking at how the training could harm the environment and what mitigation efforts can be used to minimize those damages.

In the Record of Decision, the Navy decided to limit the amount of training allowed in the Gulf, cutting what’s allowed essentially in half. Officials said they made that decision in response to concerns raised by coastal communities along the Gulf, who were worried the activity would harm fish and marine mammals.

“We do everything we can while we’re training to ensure that we minimize our environmental impacts, and we’re really proud of our track record in being good stewards of the environment while we do the training in the Gulf of Alaska,” said Alex Stone, Navy project manager for the Gulf EIS.

Environmental groups say the Navy ignored their main concerns, however, the timing and location of the exercise. Eyak Preservation Council program director Emily Stolarcyk said the first two weeks in May, when the exercise is scheduled, are critical for migrating birds, fish and marine mammals.

Stolarcyk said even though the Navy will be doing less training, they’ll still be doing it in essential habitat for many species, at a time when those animals are at their weakest.

“They are still allowed to use active sonar, they are still allowed to conduct carrier strikes, which is where they blow up a ship. They are still allowed to drop bombs,” said Stolarcyk. “Some of the reserves that these animals might have to be able to adapt to the Navy’s exercises maybe are a little bit compromised in May than they would be, say, in September or October when they’ve been eating all summer.”

The Eyak Preservation Council is planning a protest for Saturday, April 29, in Homer, against the timing and location of Northern Edge. Several communities along the Gulf have passed resolutions, asking the Navy to move the training further offshore, to a later time of year.

Stone said the Navy uses safety zones, lookouts and sensors to watch for marine mammals in areas where they are using explosives or sonar. He said he understands people’s concerns, and, “how important fishing is to the community and the economy and how important marine mammals are and protecting the environment.”

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