HONOLULU — A Navy plan to dredge dozens of acres of coral to make way for a new aircraft carrier berth on the small U.S. Pacific territory of Guam is triggering an outcry among locals concerned the move will wipe out important marine life and a valuable part of the island's livelihood and culture.
The Navy wants the berth because its aircraft carriers are spending more time in the western Pacific as the U.S. provides a deterrent to North Korea and monitors the rapid growth and modernization of China's military.
But Guam's fishermen are worried the dredging will hurt fish stocks and harm their ability to catch fish to feed their families. Others worry the tourism industry will suffer as the dredging hurts coral visited by scuba divers and submarine tours. Federal agencies have told the Navy they're concerned about the large scale impact the plan would have.
"They're saying 'We're going to destroy 70 acres of an irreplaceable natural resource of yours,'" said Cara Flores-Mays, an active leader of the group We Are Guahan, an organization that is criticizing the coral dredging plan and other aspects of the military's buildup on Guam. "This is a place that sustains life. It helps us to continue our cultural practices, it enables our economy to flourish."
The Navy has narrowed down its potential locations for the berth to two spots right next to each other inside Apra Harbor, the 212-square mile island's only deep water port. The Navy will also need a basin for the carriers — each over 1,000 feet long — to turn around in, which will require some dredging.
The first location, which the Navy prefers, would require 25 acres of coral to be dredged. Silt generated by the dredging would be expected to float onto and thus possibly smother another 46 acres of coral.
Under the second option, the Navy would dredge 24 acres and indirectly harm over 47 acres. More than 70 acres of coral would be affected under either plan.
The Navy has commissioned a study of the coral, which is expected to be finished in September or October, to help it selects a site.
Other government agencies, however, say they're concerned by both options.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the National Marines Fisheries Service, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service sent the Navy a joint letter last October asking the service to reconsider the possibility of building the berth at a third site that would require less dredging.
"We remain very concerned with the overall scale of the potential impacts and mitigation requirements from the proposed alternatives," said the letter.
Laurie Raymundo, director of the University of Guam's marine laboratory said the major concern among those critical of the plan is that there are some beautiful reefs both where coral would need to be dredged for the turning basin and where silt would expected to flow.
"Dredging is really destructive. Basically what you're doing eliminating the reef," she said. "The fish habitat and all those other things like sea cucumbers and soft corals, algae ... things that are associated with coral reef communities — none of that would be expected to survive."
Sen. Benjamin J. Cruz, vice speaker of Guam's legislature, said he couldn't believe the Navy was planning to rip coral out of the water at a time when the public has become more aware of how important coral is to marine life and the environment.
He noted the U.S. government actively supported the International Year of the Reef in 2008. The project's website notes reefs support 25 percent of the world's marine life, are known as the rainforests of the ocean, and offer a nursery ground and refuge to many organisms from sponges to shrimp and sea turtles.
"It's ecologically unsound and it will destroy our tourism," Cruz said of the Navy's plan. "The coral is all part of the basis of the ecosystem of the ocean."
He compared the situation on Guam, where the military is also planning move 8,000 Marines and their families from Okinawa, to the 2009 blockbuster science fiction movie, "Avatar."
In the film, a tribe of humanoid species called Navi is threatened by the expansion of a mining colony. The overall military buildup is expected to boost Guam's population by 79,000 people, or 45 percent, over its current 180,000 residents.
"Like the blue people in Avatar, we're being run over," Cruz said. "They're just coming in and destroying everything."
Manny Duenas, president of the Guam Fishermen's Cooperative Association, said the dredging will lead to a drop in the number of fish around his island.
"It's going to be sad when people want a fish for traditional or cultural practices, they're going to have to open a can of tuna and say that's the fish for the day," said Duenas.
The Navy currently docks its carriers — ships so massive they're like floating cities of 5,000 sailors and Marines — at a wharf inside Apra Harbor.
But the Navy can't dock carriers there for more than a few days at a time. The Navy wants to be able to sit a carrier in the harbor for as long as three weeks, and 63 days overall each year, while mechanics do maintenance and sailors rest or swap crews.
The U.S. has a carrier berth in Yokosuka, Japan where the USS George Washington is home-ported. But Capt. Bruce Stewart, the U.S. Pacific Fleet's chief of operations, said the Navy needed another spot for carriers passing through the region, noting Guam recently hosted an exercise involving three carriers.
Yokosuka is also more focused on northeast Asia where as Guam offers access to the western Pacific, he said.
"It's critically important because of the strategic location," Stewart said of Guam, which is 1,500 miles south of Tokyo.
Duenas, the head of the fishing cooperative, said the military should have consulted more with the community before it put together its plans.
He recalled Guam was the only U.S. land to be occupied by Japan during World War II and the only other place in the U.S. other than Pearl Harbor that was attacked during the war.
"You call me up to arms again, and I'll gladly serve to protect the United States," said Duenas, who was in the Army Reserve for eight years. "I only wish that people would look at us and realize we are also part of the American family."