ANCHORAGE - The operator of the trans-Alaska pipeline and Valdez tanker port says there is a shortage of fishing boats ready to assist if there is an oil spill in Prince William Sound.
State regulators require Alyeska Pipeline Service Co. to contract with hundreds of fishing boats to be on call to help clean up any oil spills.
In January, Alyeska said it had 20 fewer fishing vessels than required ready to respond to a tanker spill in Prince William Sound.
But a watchdog group says the shortfall may have been as high as 33 vessels.
Alyeska's fishing-vessel program has suffered for years due to low pay, lack of respect toward fishermen and their exclusion from decision making about the program, according to the Prince William Sound Regional Citizens' Advisory Council.
Homer commercial salmon driftnetter John Velsko said only half of the vessels traditionally involved in Alyeska's spill-training exercises in the Homer area received training last year.
Velsko, an advisory council board member who has been under contract with Alyeska for 12 years, said the company's pay rate has not kept pace with escalating vessel fees and insurance costs.
"In the past, fishing vessel owners have been doing this as a public service, but now the costs have become so high that they have a hard time justifying it," he said.
Stan Jones, the council's spokesman, said the council and fishing boat captains have been warning Alyeska and regulators about problems with the program since 2005.
"There's a long chain of evidence that the problem has been building for a while," Jones said.
The Prince William Sound, Kenai Peninsula and Kodiak fishing fleets have played a key role in responding to oil-spill emergencies ever since the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill.
In Prince William Sound, roughly 200 fishing boats must be ready to respond to a tanker spill, according to the state's mandatory spill response plan for North Slope crude oil tankers.
Alyeska revealed the shortage of fishing vessel responders to state regulators during an inspection in January. Since then, Alyeska has been on a recruiting push.
Alyeska said it has instituted a temporary 10 percent pay increase for the vessels based in Prince William Sound to help boost participation.
On Friday, the company said its shortfall has dropped to five vessels.