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Open Mic: U.S. Navy’s Northern Edge 17– Negative influence on avian species?

At the Mic: Kate McLaughlin

Sighting Arctic Terns is a sure sign that spring has arrived in the North Gulf of Alaska. The graceful floating flight of the snow-colored birds, in contrast with their sharp toned “kee-err” call, makes their presence obvious among the flocks of Glaucous-winged Gulls and Black-legged Kittiwakes congregating over shoals of forage fish. The fish in turn are feeding on the spring plankton bloom growing in the swift nutrient rich glacier fed currents of the Gulf of Alaska (GOA). The birds have been moving northwestward up the Pacific Flyway following the greening spring on land and in the ocean. Schools of salmon, cod and herring are following the plankton bloom and bait fish. Whales, trailed by new calves born in warmer southern waters, follow in the fishes’ wake.

This remote area is home to an immense amount of avian life. In fact, 87% of all seabirds in the US nest along the coastline of the GOA. In numbers, that is equal to fifty million birds of 26 different species of seabirds. Pelagic mid-water and deep diving species forage over large areas, and to depths of 200m, utilizing the resources brought by upwelling from the Pacific shelf and the turbulent Alaska current.

The shorebird migration in early May on the Copper River Delta is one of the most important staging areas on the Pacific Flyway.  In celebration of this annual event the small fishing town of Cordova holds the Copper River Shorebird Festival. In its 27th year, from May 5 – 7th, the festival draws bird lovers from all over the world. The Alaskan communities of Yakutat, Kenai and Homer are welcoming the birds back with festivals of their own.

In the GOA, on Middleton Island, 42 miles offshore from Montague Island, the largest barrier island in Prince William Sound, kittiwake and Glaucous-winged Gull colonies are already busy nesting by May. The former military radar site now accommodates the largest nesting colony of Black-legged Kittiwakes in Alaska.

Each day during the nesting season the researchers working at the Middleton Island Marine Biological Station walk over to one of the deteriorating radar towers to study the nesting kittiwakes and cormorants filling its ragged interior.  The tower was built by the Airforce in 1957 and was part of the White Alice Communication System until 1963. Middleton Island, like many places in Alaska, was untouched by infrastructure until the American military established a presence in the last 100 years

The military is still very much an active presence in the Gulf of Alaska, even if they’ve abandoned Middleton.  Coinciding with most ecologically important time of the year, the U.S. Navy plans to conduct Northern Edge ‘17 (NE17), a joint military training activity planned for May 1 – 12th, 2017. According to the U.S. Navy’s Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) preferred plans, these “war games” can involve use of high-frequency and mid-frequency sonar (235 dB) for submarine exercises, plus authorized use of a wide variety of live weapons and explosives deployment – bombs, heavy deck guns, torpedoes, missiles, large carrier strikes (ships blown up & sunk) none of which will ever be recovered. Although military training exercises have been conducted in the GOA intermittently for the last 40 years, 2017 is the first time active sonar will be used in May and only the third time ever that Northern Edge has occurred in May. The two years Northern Edge occurred in May were 2007 and 2008, active sonar was not permitted and the amount of ordnance used was 200% less than the Navy is currently seeking authorization for.

Conducting Northern Edge in May means the military is actively testing war weapons and flying up to 200 aircraft during a time when millions of birds, fish and marine mammals are returning to the region.

While the military would like to assure the public that the games will have little direct effect on birds, there are too many unknowns to conclude ‘no significant impacts’ as the U.S. Navy claims. The U.S. Navy is largely exempt from researching the impacts Northern Edge could have on birds because of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act (MBTA). All activities that would take place under NE17 are within the MBTA definition of military readiness activities. The take of birds from these activities is allowed under the MBTA provided it does not result in a significant adverse effect on a population of a migratory bird species. The U.S. Navy concludes after conducting no research that activities associated would not diminish the capacity of a population of a migratory bird species to maintain genetic diversity, to reproduce, and to function effectively in its native ecosystem, nor would it adversely affect migratory bird populations. Therefore, the U.S. Navy is not required to confer with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (USFWS) on the development and implementation of conservation measures to minimize or mitigate adverse effects to migratory birds that are not listed under the ESA.

What will be the impact from the military activities on birds during the spring migration?  Northern Edge’s northeastern activity limit is 12 miles from Middleton Island, the nearest point of land. But the birds, the prey they feed on, and the water currents know no boundaries. Flocks of birds are traveling northward along the coastline, presumably most would not be crossing or feeding far out in the open waters of the Gulf of Alaska yet they could still be impacted by the vessel movements, overhead flights of military jets, explosive ordnance, sonar training, weapons firing/nonexplosive ordnance use, expended materials (ordnance-related materials, targets, sonobuoys, and marine markers), air, water and noise pollution. Furthermore, as the Gulf of Alaska is a relatively research poor area, information on flight paths, altitudes and timing is extremely limited to only a handful of birds on a handful of species.

The area where the U.S. Navy is planning to conduct their exercises is known as the Temporary Maritime Activities Area (TMAA) and is approximately 300 nm long by 150 nm wide. This area is a highly productive region with critical habitat for 383 species of fish and eight endangered species of marine mammal (North Pacific right whale, Humpback whale, Blue Whale, Fin Whale, Sei Whale, Gray Whale, Sperm Whale, Steller sea lion, and sea otter).

As part of the training exercise active sonar will be blasted. Devices and materials will be exploded, deployed, dropped and discarded, all of which contain persistent organic contaminants. Returning salmon and other schooling fish could be scattered, or even injured or killed by explosions or sonar as they move through the GOA. Could that affect the timing and number of fish returning to their spawning grounds?

The expended materials that are utilized and never recovered contain a host of heavy metals such as chromium, cyanide, lithium, lead, mercury and even may contain depleted uranium. These materials are known to be severely toxic at very low concentrations and are extremely persistent in the environment. Research on the effects of depleted uranium in marine environments has already established that exposure to environmentally relevant concentrations of uranium has negative impacts on fish embryogenesis and on fish reproduction. Other sources of the hazardous materials released by the U.S. Navy include, propellant from aircraft, ships and ordnance, along with toxic components of fuel oils including aromatic hydrocarbons such as benzene, toluene, xylene, and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons such as naphthalene, acenaphthene and fluoranthene. The U.S. Navy’s own Final EIS states, “little is known about the very important issues of nonmortality damage in the short and long-term, and nothing is known about effect on behavior of fish.”

Not only are birds eating natural prey that may be carrying a toxic chemical load, but they are also picking up floating pieces of plastic debris and chaff, mistaking the bright colored shapes for squid or other prey. The plastic that is ingested has no nutritional quality and can cause internal punctures and blockages. The plastic not only starves the bird who gathers it, but also the chick it feeds debris to. Parakeet Auklets, shearwaters and the endangered Short-tailed Albatross, which all frequent the GOA, are especially vulnerable to this type of hazard.  Over 80% of all seabirds are now carrying pieces of plastic in their stomachs.

It is illogical to assume that the large scale military exercises as described by the U.S. Navy’s  will not have any negative effect on birds and the marine ecology of the Gulf of Alaska. While the potential for bird-plane strikes and direct mortality from explosives and sonar exposure may not be significant, the indirect effects from disruption and resource contamination very well may be.  But how can they be observed and quantified?  An already difficult task is made more challenging due to the military habit of not fully informing the public of their activities.  If they are conducting research on their impacts to the environment, will they tell the public the full results?  So much of the military’s communications to the public are limited due to omitting classified information.  When public studies are performed, they are usually done long after the activity has ceased and with no baseline data to compare conditions.

Wildlife live on a knife edge, it takes a lot of effort to travel long distances, avoid predators, survive hazards, and find enough calories to stay alive each day. Add to that a changing climate, habitat destruction, food resource depletion, man-made disturbance, and the challenges of survival are made exponentially more difficult. May is an especially critical time of year for the many species traveling to and through the Gulf of Alaska. Exposing wildlife to the noise from military activities could have more severe impacts than if it was done at a later time of year. Migrating birds have low energy reserves, some whale species migrating to the area have not eaten since the previous fall and the fish are on their way to their home rivers to spawn and complete their life cycle.  There are so many questions left unanswered, so many ramifications unknown.

People looking to help can contact the Eyak Preservation Council in Cordova, Alaska. They are the organization leading the charge in trying to get the Navy to change the time and location. For more information, contact them by email (eyak AT redzone.org) or follow Summer is for Salmon on Facebook.

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Kate McLaughlin is an independent environmental consultant and the Project Director of the Alaska Hummingbird Project, Inc. based in Cordova, Alaska. This article was written for the Eyak Preservation Council, a nonprofit organization also based in Cordova, AK that is actively working to raise awareness about Northern Edge and work with local communities and the military to find common ground. Learn more about the issue at www.SummerIsForSalmon.org.

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