Surfbird retires after 50 years on SE waters

Posted: Wednesday, February 11, 2004

Since 1969, the vessel Surfbird, owned by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, has carried hundreds of volunteer and professional biologists along the coasts of Southeast Alaska.

This summer, instead of helping the Fish and Wildlife Service keep track of eagles and other creatures, the 50-year-old boat will be offered for sale on eBay, retired from its 39-year stint with the federal government.

"It's the end of an era," said Joe McClung, who has captained the ship since 1989.

The Fish and Wildlife Service bought the 65-foot Surfbird in 1968 at a government surplus auction. The U.S. Army built the ship in 1953 to transport troops in battle, but the Fish and Wildlife Service brought it to Southeast Alaska to help preserve bald eagle habitat.

"Around 1969 and 1970, bald eagle protection was not a high priority here," said Jack Hodges, who started working on the Surfbird in 1975. He's now a pilot and biologist for the Fish and Wildlife Service.

The crew of the Surfbird, which usually totaled six people, would spend late April through September of every year surveying the coasts, spotting eagles' nests and documenting other wildlife.

The Bald Eagle Protection Act, passed by Congress in 1940, prohibited molesting or destroying bald eagle habitats. The Fish and Wildlife Service enforces the act, making sure the U.S. Forest Service and other land owners don't disturb eagle habitats, said Hodges.

"I really think that the eagle work we did was integral in leading to a great management system for the shoreline," Hodges said.

The Surfbird counted about one eagle's nest for every 114 mile of shoreline in Southeast. The Forest Service, Native corporations and other land owners are required to leave a buffer of 1,000 feet around each nest, Hodges said.

"We have definitely protected old-growth nesting habitat on many, many miles of shoreline that would have been clear cut," he said.

The buffers made it possible for more eagles to survive in Southeast when eagle populations were dropping in the rest of the country, said Mike Jacobson, the eagle management specialist for the Fish and Wildlife Service. He started working on the boat in 1984.

In a 14-year period, biologists on the Surfbird also collected nearly 400 eagles that were relocated to the Lower 48, mostly to New York state, Jacobson said.

"Those states track the birds, and from what we can see it's really been pretty successful," he said.

After the Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989, the Surfbird was used to survey bird, fish and mammal species in Prince William Sound.

Though the boat is in fairly good shape, its 50-year-old engine is difficult to repair, McClung said.

"Mainly it's because the engine is so old that to get parts for it is, I don't know if you want to use the word, impractical or impossible," McClung said.

The ecological services division of the Fish and Wildlife Service has operated the Surfbird's sister ship, the Curlew, since 1972, said Michelle Kissling, who has worked on the Surfbird since 1996.

The Curlew is used to inspect areas under consideration for special permits with government agencies. This summer, the bird surveys and ecological services work will be done entirely from the Curlew, with McClung as its captain, Kissling said.

Because the two missions will be performed on the same boat, the agency's ability to survey species may be compromised, employees said.

"We'll continue to do some of the work, but we probably won't do as much as we have done in the past," Jacobson said.

More disappointing to some of the scientists will be the missed opportunity for new experiences on the ship.

"Every day was a new day," Jacobson said. "Every trip we'd have different adventures, see really interesting stuff. By being out there in the field so much, it really made us experts in field research in a lot of ways."

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