Navy Responds to Plea Against Gulf of Alaska War Games in Spring 2023

USS Theodore Roosevelt
The aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt transits the Gulf of Alaska after participating in exercise Northern Edge 2019. U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Erick A. Parsons.

Joint military exercises in the Gulf of Alaska in 2023, which take place every other spring on the eve of the Copper River commercial salmon fishery, are already drawing fire from entities concerned about adverse impact on the area’s fishery and environment.

While the actual scheduling of the Northern Edge war games will be determined by the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, opponents of holding the exercises in May are asking Naval Facilities Engineering Systems Command Northwest to avoid holding the event in May 2023.

The Copper River District has been experiencing below average harvests for several years and when it opens for 12 hours on May 16, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game is expected to take a conservative management approach for the start of the season.

In years past, harvesters, communities and environmental groups have told the U.S. Navy it’s just bad timing. This past week, Carol Hoover, executive director of the Eyak Preservation Council, citing years of protests from this region, again requested that the military not conduct these exercises in May because of potential adverse impact on dwindling fish stocks.

Navy officials responding to Hoover’s letter said that those comments and all others will be considered and responded to in the final supplemental environmental impact statement, expected to be released this summer or fall.

“Northern Edge is a joint services exercise that historically occurs across broad areas of Alaska and the Gulf of Alaska every other year for about a two-week period,” Navy Region Northwest spokeswoman Julianne Stanford said. “The exercise is critical to ensuring our military personnel are prepared to respond to a variety of national defense missions.”

Stanford noted that the Navy has participated in the exercises for decades, but that it is the Indo-Pacific Command that determines dates based on a number of factors, including weather conditions, safety of personnel, equipment effectiveness, availability of forces, deployment schedules, maintenance periods and other exercise schedules within the Pacific region.

Environmental and socioeconomic factors are considered as well.

“Pacific Air Forces is currently planning exercise Northern Edge 2023 for May 2023 in the air, land and maritime areas of the Joint Pacific Alaska Range Complex,” Stanford remarked. “Part of the planning considerations include orienting the at-sea training area in the Gulf of Alaska to specifically avoid overlap with salmon fisheries management areas migration corridors, and areas of greatest species occurrence.

But the Navy has come to some conclusions.

“After a detailed environmental analysis,” she added, “the Navy has determined that its activities will have negligible impacts to individual fishes and will have no impact to fish populations or fishery harvest.”