By: Meghan Heneghan

In 2006, The United States-Japan ‘Roadmap for Realignment Implementation’ agreement was signed—a bilateral agreement of a relocation of over 8,600 U.S. Marine Corps members from Okinawa, Japan to Guam, the U.S. Territory in the Marianas Islands. This operation (CNMI Military Relocation, or military buildup) could be one of the largest peacetime military buildups in U.S. history (Marler and Moore 2011). The details of this plan have evolved over time and with the budget sequestration much is on hold at the present moment.

But, as the recent tensions with North Korea have suggested, some degree strategic pivot including a buildup on Guam seems inevitable. With this planned relocation comes a plan to expand operations in Apra Harbor—the largest deep-water port in the Western Pacific and the busiest in Micronesia. Within this port are over 70 acres of coral reefs that will be destroyed in the process. The port is of vital importance not only for the U.S. Navy but also as a tourist attraction for its wealth of marine life—its unique habitats host many species not found elsewhere in the archipelago, as well as some of the highest coral cover (Paulay 2003).

Yet the location’s significance above water resonates with many. Apra Harbor is not only strategically desirable as a location for a military base, but desirable as a U.S. port in relation to the Western Pacific. The U.S. Military deems the expansion necessary to support an increase in cargo traffic and operations, and would require various construction and dredging activities to increase water depths for the safe navigation of military and commercial vessels. Since the inception of the agreement, the program has faced challenges as some Guam citizens with a “not in my backyard” attitude oppose the changes, while others favor the buildup and the economic stimulus it will bring (Robertson 2011). Planners hope to reconcile both of these considerations in executing the Harbor’s expansion and development.

Apra Harbor’s coral reefs and fishery resources are integral components of the Guam economy. According to the Guam Economic Development Authority, tourism accounts for up to 60% of the government’s annual revenues as well as provides 20,000 direct and indirect jobs (SPREP 442). The health of the reefs plays an essential role in maintaining the desirability of Guam and Apra Harbor as tourist destinations, and these reefs are particularly susceptible to damage from anthropogenic sources. Coral reefs are important indicators of health for the ecosystem—a decline in coral species increases vulnerability of the coastal area and loss of ecosystem livelihood.

Recently, it was determined that Guam’s coral reefs face threats from sedimentation, runoff and pollutants, heavy fishing pressure, marine debris, boat groundings, dredging, and recreational overuse (Burdick et al. 2008). The last few decades have seen a marked decrease in the resilience of Guam’s reefs, posing a dismal outlook for reef recovery after unnatural disturbances. The authors also note the significant threats inherent in the US Department of Defense’s plans to expand military presence on Guam, which would increase the population by up to 60,000 people and involve numerous construction projects (Burdick et al. 2008). New development includes an enhanced wharf facility with subsequent placement of more than 700,000 cubic meters of fill material over submerged lands, as well as the significant dredging of shallow waters adjacent to the wharf to accommodate large deep draft commercial and military vessels.

In Apra Harbor, over 70 acres of mostly coral-covered seabed would be dredged, according to the EIS (EIS 2010). This is planned with the intention of accommodating further port activity as well as turnaround space for a U.S. military aircraft carrier. The negative effects of dredging activities are twofold: not only are important marine organisms completely removed or scraped off of the ocean bottom, but the dredging also increases sedimentation and turbidity that severely decreases water quality, making it difficult for remaining plants and algae to photosynthesize, therefore further reducing organism survival.

Particularly concerning are reports that have classified sediments in Apra Harbor to be particularly high in copper, mercury, nickel, lead, tin and zinc (Denton et al. 1999). The undesirable state of the harbor sediments stems from post WWII private operations in the Apra Harbor Ship Repair Facility, which “have contributed to the production of probably the most polluted sediments in any Guam harbor and possibly some of the most seriously polluted harbor sediments in the world” (Dredging Around Coral Reefs 2011). The upheaval and redistribution of these sediments to various points in the harbor provides an obvious cause for concern about ecosystem health – particularly corals and benthic invertebrates (Burdick et al. 2012).

The dredging, however, is the prominent but not the only concerning alteration to the sensitive marine ecosystem of Apra Harbor. The activities involved in the construction of the expanded naval base would result in noise-related adverse effects to sea turtles and essential fish habitats. Special status species like sea turtles would face long-term effects from construction activities, mitigated less than significantly. Additionally, the port provides ample opportunity for non-native marine species introduction; there is a projected six-fold increase in cargo arriving at ports of entry—an increase that feasibly suggests a six-fold increase in introduced species, which are not adequately screened upon arrival to Guam (Marler and Moore 2011). Thus, the current marine species in Apra Harbor face threats not only from direct damage by construction and dredging activities, but also from changes in the dynamics of the system, whether it introduced species or death by loss of coral reef habitat.

With hundreds of pages of delineated management practices and protectionist measures, the EIS attempts to present a comprehensive overview of all necessary conflict solutions during the project’s construction and subsequent use. However, a host of critics have come forth in highlighting deficiencies present in the final EIS. Advocacy group websites as well as case study findings describe the inadequacies as “lacking adequate local scientific infrastructure”, “lacking critical data to define mitigation practices”, even “written not to protect Guam but to protect U.S. Government from criticism once things go wrong on Guam” (Marler and Moore 2010, Paik 2010).

This presents a serious issue for Guam’s human population, who depend heavily on the marine resources culturally as well as economically. A Pacific Islands Fisheries Science Center Report found the population’s emphasis on personal enjoyment derived from fishing, sense of cultural identity, as well as dependence of income and family consumption on fishing (Allen and Bartram 2008). Future research will include greater depth of understanding social reception of the contentious military buildup plan, but presently prominent standpoints for both support and criticism of the project have been vocalized.

At present, the issues presented by the military buildup on Guam are multifaceted and, for many stakeholders, incompletely understood. The full extent of the damage inherent in the military buildup project will be unknown until it actually takes place, but even conservative estimates suggest extremely adverse effects on the marine systems will be unavoidable. The EIS, however, with its proposal of various mitigation strategies, aims to avoid, manage, and mitigate the effects on the region. Yet, controversy surrounding the EIS methodology and accuracy only further confounds the issues at hand. Further research will analyze the progression of the project and the cooperation between Guam residents, environmentalists, policy makers, and military strategists.

About the Author: Meghan Heneghan (seen here diving on Western Shoals, Apra Harbor, Guam on May 28, 2013: Photo by David Ginsburg) is a sophomore from Ellicott City, Maryland pursuing BA degrees in Environmental Studies and International Relations.


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Editor’s note: Scientific Research Diving at USC Dornsife is offered as part of an experiential summer program offered to undergraduate students of the USC Dana and David Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences through the Environmental Studies Program. This course takes place on location at the USC Wrigley Marine Science Center on Catalina Island and throughout Micronesia. Students investigate important environmental issues such as ecologically sustainable development, fisheries management, protected-area planning and assessment, and human health issues. During the course of the program, the student team will dive and collect data to support conservation and management strategies to protect the fragile coral reefs of Guam and Palau in Micronesia.

Instructors for the course include Jim Haw, Director of the Environmental Studies Program in USC Dornsife, Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies David Ginsburg, Lecturer Kristen Weiss, SCUBA instructor and volunteer in the USC Scientific Diving Program Tom Carr and USC Dive Safety Officer Gerry Smith of the USC Wrigley Institute for Environmental Studies.

Previously in this series:

The 2013 Guam and Palau Expedition Begins

A New Faculty Member on the Team

An Analysis of Sargassum Horneri Ecosystem Impact

Marine Protected Areas and Catalina Island: Conserve, Maintain and Enrich

Northern Elephant Seals: Increasing Population, Decreasing Biodiversity

The Relationship Between the Economy and Tourism on Catalina Island

Guam and Palau 2013: New Recruits and New Experiences

- Laura Hough - Bringing War to the “Island of Peace” – The Fight for the Preservation of Jeju-do