For one week every year, a series of giant ships and submarines parade into the San Francisco Bay, San Francisco’s skies crowd with dozens of zooming jets, and an array of military-oriented festivities take place throughout the city that collectively, are difficult to ignore. This year, that week fell on the 2nd through 10th of October as San Francisco celebrated its 42nd annual Fleet Week.

Fleet Week 2023 was particularly special as it coincided with the public services dedicated to the late Senator and former Mayor of San Francisco, Dianne Feinstein, who passed just days before the start of the festivities. Besides the several air shows dedicated to Feinstein, this year’s Fleet Week brought art shows, career fairs, ship tours, concerts, exhibitions, and a K-9 celebration (each with militaristic emphasis) to neighborhoods all over the City.

Although Fleet Week is a time-honored tradition beloved by so many Bay Area residents, it presents some serious challenges to the environment and the people that call San Francisco home, challenges that could make city leaders reconsider their investments in, and ties to, Fleet Week. In this article, we’ll examine the social and environmental implications of Fleet Week and if they’re worth the excitement and joy that many people find in its celebration.

The Blue Angels take flight at the 2023 Fleet Week air show in San Francisco. | Benjamin Fanjoy for The San Francisco Standard

San Francisco Fleet Week began in 1981 when then-Mayor Dianne Feinstein was working to show members of the Navy what a great city San Francisco could be as a Navy city. However, while one of the goals of Fleet Week was to attract Navy members to the enticing streets of the city, Feinstein also worked to use Fleet Week as a way to bring shipping jobs back to San Francisco. Both of these goals ultimately failed, as counterculture/anti-war sentiments ran strong in the city, and most of the blue collar ship repair business went to other cities on the West Coast. However, Feinstein’s first Fleet Week in 1981 was ultimately a success as San Franciscans stalled their daily activities to recognize the impressive ships and planes flocking the Bay and paid for sailors’ drinks at the local bars. Fleet Week has continued to build affection and positive public sentiment since (Hartlaub, 2023).

Fleet Week’s defenders are quick to jump to the fiscal incentivization of the annual, and notably “free,” event. According to multiple sources, including Maryann Jones Thompson and Shelley D. Fargo of The San Francisco Standard, “SF Fleet Week brings in an estimated $10 million in revenue to the city annually,” although I would guess that most of that money comes through sources indirectly related to Fleet Week, like sales tax. But what does it cost to host Fleet Week? It certainly isn’t free. According to calculations done by Daniel DeMay of SFGate, the Fleet Week 2016 practices and demonstrations cost taxpayers something north of $1.26 million (DeMay, 2016). But this is just one of the many costs of Fleet Week. The other costs are shouldered by the environment and its patrons.

Perhaps the most obvious environmental impact of Fleet Week is the superfluous emission of carbon from fueling the jet shows and freighter ships. The Blue Angels collectively burn 38,400 gallons of jet fuel during their three shows and one practice, each jet burning 1,600 gallons per flight (Hao 2022). This equates to around 825,600 pounds of climate-warming emissions entering the atmosphere during Fleet Week (Hao 2022). And this figure excludes all other planes besides the six Blue Angels that take flight throughout the week! To many, this seems like a wasteful and pointless use of harmful fuels, and maybe it is, but this amount of emissions is just one small drop in a massive ocean of air pollution and greenhouse gas contributions and therefore not the most compelling argument against Fleet Week, at least for the environment’s sake.

Noise pollution is not frequently treated as a valid or dangerous source of pollution on the environment. For example, noise pollution is not as tangible or surmountable as waste pollution, and it’s harder to hold noise polluters responsible, especially compared to water or air polluters. But that does not mean that noise pollution isn’t harmful. In fact, the impacts of noise pollution are intricate and, in some cases, quite extreme. As environmental journalist Ula Chrobak illustrates, some animals need a certain degree of silence to hear predators approaching or communicate with their mates: “a bird song whose song would normally travel 100 meters, with a ten-fold increase in noise, would have its melody stifled to a ten-meter radius” (Chrobak 2017).

Fleet Week represents a huge threat to San Francisco’s environment through its excessive noise pollution courtesy of the jets and planes that grace the skies but also through the giant freighters and oceancraft that sail into the Bay. The urban nature and constant noise of San Francisco already present problems to the local ecology, but Fleet Week brings about a period of intense auditory stress on all living creatures that’s completely avoidable. For example, there’s speculation that maritime activity related to Fleet Week could be harmful for marine life in the Bay. Mary Jane Schramm of the Greater Farallones National Marine Sanctuary told SFGate that the annual procession of Fleet Week ships into the Bay goes directly through humpback and blue whale territory (Fimrite 2016). This is concerning because human-caused oceanic noises (like military sonar or low-frequency sounds from large ships) can disturb whale mating and echolocation but could also prove fatal to the creatures, which is especially problematic along migratory paths and in the warm, shallow waters of California’s central coast (Center for Biological Diversity).

The Procession of Ships passing under the Golden Gate Bridge | Fleetweeksf.org

The Fleet Week noises heard above ground are also problematic. Speaking from personal experience, the blasts of noise from passing jets are rattling to the core and so overwhelming. All of these problems may be heightened for those with sensory sensitivities. What’s worse is that there’s no reprieve from the onslaught of plane noises. Fleet Week is not an optional event for the living beings who live or work in San Francisco.

It’s true that the pollution which Fleet Week is responsible for does not represent a large portion in the global context. However, I think that as we navigate the climate crisis and make critical choices and sacrifices in the process, intention is really important to think about. Sure, SF Fleet Week is a time honored tradition, but it’s also an excessive display of military might that comes with unnecessary pollution and avoidable usage of limited natural resources. So much is on the line with the fate of the planet, and I’m unconvinced that Fleet Week is worth hanging on to in light of this.

 

References

Hartlaub, Peter. “How did Fleet Week land in San Francisco? It Started with Dianne Feinstein.” San Francisco Chronicle, Oct. 25th, 2013.

https://www.sfchronicle.com/oursf/article/dianne-feinstein-fleet-week-san-francisco-18402784.php#:~:text=But%20the%20modern%20Fleet%20Week,of%20her%20vast%20local%20legacy 

https://sfstandard.com/2022/10/03/best-place-to-watch-fleet-week-2022-guide-san-francisco/ 

https://www.sfgate.com/local/article/That-Blue-Angels-show-you-just-saw-wasn-t-exactly-9139046.php 

https://archive.is/ve8MG 

https://www.sfgate.com/local/article/That-Blue-Angels-show-you-just-saw-wasn-t-exactly-9139046.php 

https://www.science.org/content/article/noise-pollution-invading-even-most-protected-natural-areas 

https://www.biologicaldiversity.org/campaigns/ocean_noise/ 

https://fleetweeksf.org/events/parade-of-ships/