Coast Guard suspends search for research vessel crew

Posted: Tuesday, July 25, 2006

ANCHORAGE - The Coast Guard on Monday afternoon suspended a search for a crew member missing from a vessel under research contract to the International Pacific Halibut Commission off a distant Bering Sea island, once called Alaska's most remote point.

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The crew member was lost when a skiff with four men on board attempted to reach St. Matthew Island.

The skiff overturned at about 11 p.m. Sunday. Three people on board swam to shore but the fourth, whose name has not been released, could not be found.

Bruce Leaman, executive director of the halibut commission, said from Seattle the missing person was part of the vessel crew and not a commission employee. He did not know the name of the missing person.

"We don't even know if families have been notified," he said. "It's something in progress."

He did not know why crew members were attempting a landing on the barren island.

"We're trying to find out as much as you are, in a lot of ways," he said.

St. Matthew Island is about 370 miles southwest of Nome in the Bering Sea. The island, uninhabited and covered by tundra, is 35 miles long and 4 miles wide.

A Coast Guard helicopter completed three search patterns of the area. An Air Force C-130 also conducted two searches and a small boat from the Coast Guard cutter Morgenthau searched for more than five hours along the shoreline. The Coast Guard said the search was suspended pending further developments.

The International Pacific Halibut Commission was established in 1923 by the United States and Canada. It researches and helps manage stocks of Pacific halibut within waters of both nations from California to Alaska.

The Heritage was conducting surveys of halibut at "standard fishing stations" by catching the flatfish using longline gear, Leaman said.

Once caught, samples are taken from the fish for research, Leaman said.

The vessel would have been carrying standard fishing vessel crew - probably four people - plus two samplers employed by the commission, Leaman said.

The three people rescued were taken to the Coast Guard cutter. They had spent time in the water and on the beach of the island, Leaman said.

"We assume they're in reasonable condition," he said.

Two people were left on the Heritage, anchored off St. Matthew Island, when the skiff departed, Leaman said. He was not sure whether two people could navigate the vessel back to port.

"Communications are not good in that area," he said.

In an article posted on the Web site of the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge, University of Alaska Fairbanks science writer Ned Rozell described the island as Alaska's most remote point. The island is alone in the Bering Sea without road, airstrip or town. The closest village is Mekoryuk, on Nunivak Island, 209 miles away off the Yukon River delta.

The island was noted for a severe crash of a reindeer population introduced by the Coast Guard in 1944. The agency introduced 29 reindeer to the island as an emergency food source for guardsmen. The Coast Guard abandoned the island a few years later.

The reindeer population rose to about 6,000 by 1963 and then died off in the next two years to about 40 animals. Researcher and biologist Dave Klein attributed the population crash to starvation because of the limited food supply and severe weather. By the 1980s, the reindeer population had died out.


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