Officials aim to keep state's shipping hub free of rats

Scientists fear threat rodents may pose to nesting seabirds

Posted: Monday, October 29, 2007

ANCHORAGE - State biologist Rick Sinnott is the city's point man for putting down belligerent moose and garbage-munching bears, but he says it's the smallest creatures that are the most invasive.

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When Sinnott heard two abandoned pet rats were scampering around the Anchorage airport last winter, he spent a dutiful hour on his stomach in wet snow before blasting the creatures dead with birdshot from his .22 rifle.

A blend of good luck and tough local legislation has preserved Anchorage as one of the only port cities in the state, and the world, without an established rat colony. Sinnott wants to make sure the status quo doesn't budge.

"All you need is one pregnant rat and all of a sudden you've got thousands of them running around," Sinnott said.

Rats can spread disease and damage everything from wiring to fishing equipment, but scientists in Alaska are most concerned about the threat they pose to millions of nesting seabirds that have no natural defenses against the clever and voracious rodents.

Web links

• Stop Rats in Alaska:

• Alaska Division of Wildlife Conservation:

• Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge:

In recent years, state officials have paid closer attention to invasive species as it's become clear that even harsh northern climates are vulnerable to colonization by a variety of unlikely foreign pests. The Board of Game issued stricter rat control regulations this year, making it a misdemeanor for vessels and aircraft to enter Alaska waters with rats on board.

Officials view fines as a last resort and are focused on spreading the word to mariners, harbormasters and airport officials about low-cost techniques for keeping rat populations at bay.

They issued a 172-page rat plan this month covering strategies for rat prevention and extermination, and recommending the formation of an Alaska Rodent Action Team made up of representatives from government agencies, conservation groups and the fishing and shipping industries.

"Rats are really adaptable. They can jump, they can climb, they can swim," said Poppy Benson, public programs work supervisor at the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge. "I don't want to demonize them, but they're incredible predators of wildlife."

By conservative estimates, rats have already depleted seabird populations on at least a dozen islands in the Aleutian chain and colonized at least 15 communities throughout the state, said Art Sowls, a wildlife biologist at the refuge.

Rats scurry along the docks in the rainy towns of the southeast panhandle and gnaw fishing equipment in the king crab capital of Dutch Harbor on the island of Unalaska. They can survive as far north as the Bering Sea coastal town of Nome, where temperatures fall below zero in the winter.

"Unalaska had a really bad rat problem in the early 1990s. Fishermen would store nets on the island and there were always leftover pieces of fish and the oil soaked into nets," said Kris Flanagan, a retired commercial fisherman and city council member in Unalaska. "Animal control has done a lot since then and we don't have near the rat problem we had back then, but we do still have rats here and they are huge."

Unalaska is a former whaling port and World War II outpost in the Aleutian Islands with a rat population dating back to the late 1820s. Flanagan said the animals there can grow to sizes that rival a small dog.

As the state's transport and population hub, vessels and vehicles from Anchorage have the potential to speed the spread of rats to other sensitive areas, such as bird rookeries in Prince William Sound and Resurrection Bay, officials said. About 80 percent of the state's supplies pass through the port.

Each week, giant cargo ships belly up to Anchorage's docks, filled with food, clothing and construction equipment from rat-infested cities in Asia, the West Coast and other towns in Alaska. Trains based at the nearby Alaska Railroad depot make regular trips to Fairbanks, 275 miles north, where residents occasionally spot feral rats.

"With as much traffic as Anchorage has and its position as the central point of Alaska, any connection is possible," said Ron Clarke, assistant director of the wildlife conservation division at the state Department of Fish and Game. "Rats have certainly exploited all sorts of transport and reached some very unlikely places."

Like shipping centers the world over, the port is filled with the perfect nooks and crannies to conceal rats, who are accomplished stowaways and excellent swimmers.

Yet, there are no traps or rat guards on the ganglines and - most surprising of all - no rats.

"It's just pure luck. We don't have any special program in place that looks out for rats or anything else," said port operations manager Stuart Gerydanus. "But we will do what is mandated in the regulations."

The city itself bans all rats, even pets, and imposes fines of at least $50 for sale, possession or importation of the animals. Scientists can only speculate about the reasons for the unusual absence of rats in a major port city.

Sinnott theorized that local predators and vigilance by residents were possibilities, but conceded that "a run of good luck" was the major factor.

Many scientists point to anti-rat programs on tiny Alaskan islands in the middle of the Bering Sea as models for other communities. The Pribilof Island towns of St. Paul and St. George started setting traps about a decade ago to protect thousands of nesting seabirds from rats, who can hitch rides on the numerous fishing vessels that call at the ports for supplies.

St. Paul has about 100 traps placed along the waterfront and near the landfill and airport.

"We've internalized rat control here in our community, but it's good the state regulations are in place," said Phillip Zavadil, co-director for the tribal government of St. Paul's ecosystem conservation office. "It gives more justification for making people pay attention to the problem."

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