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State officials concerned spill will affect fisheries

Tanner and snow crab, Pacific cod fisheries scheduled to open after new year

Posted: Monday, December 20, 2004

ANCHORAGE - State conservation officials plan to monitor the water quality off Unalaska Island to find out whether fuel spilled from a grounded freighter will affect Bering Sea fisheries scheduled to open next month.

Makushin and Skan bays are home to a tanner crab fishery scheduled to open Jan. 15. The 738-foot Selendang Ayu broke in half near those bays after running aground Dec. 8.

An unknown amount of fuel and soybeans have spilled out of the ship's remains, darkening the sea and washing ashore.

Pacific cod and Bering Sea snow crab fisheries are also scheduled to open after the new year, and could be affected by the heavy bunker oil and diesel that has spilled from the vessel, officials said.

Gary Folley of the state Department of Environmental Conservation said officials will collect information on where the fishing fleets operate, determine the potential for impact and analyze water samples daily.

"We want to establish what we need to worry about," Folley said from Dutch Harbor on Saturday.

The Division of Commercial Fisheries has the authority to change the opening of the fisheries if a problem is found, Folley said.

The tanner crab fishery could be directly affected because of its proximity to the grounded freighter. The snow crab fishery, while in the Pribilof Islands, could also be affected because the fleet sails out of Dutch Harbor.

Fishing vessels pump seawater into their cargo holds to keep their catch fresh, meaning the crabs could be effected by the spill when the boats move through those waters on their return to Dutch Harbor, Folley said.

The deadline for the East Aleutian District tanner fishery registration is Dec. 27. Division of Commercial Fisheries officials should make a decision on whether to go ahead with the scheduled opening at that time, Folley said.

Commercial fisheries officials in Juneau and Kodiak could not be reached on Saturday.

The Makushin Bay tanner crab fishery's number of new-shell legal male crabs has doubled since 2003, and the division's guideline harvest level for the 2005 season is 171,453 pounds, according to a Division of Commercial Fisheries release.

Seventeen fishing vessels have already pre-registered for the season.

Bad weather delayed flights over the wreckage of the Selendang Ayu on Saturday, and officials were unable to determine whether additional fuel had spilled, said Howard Hile of Gallagher Marine Services, hired by ship operator IMC Group to lead the company's response.

The rough weather also delayed attempts to clean the shoreline of Skan Bay, although officials hoped to take advantage of a break in the weather to begin operations along the shore of Humpback Bay, Hile said.

Spill responders last week started shoreline cleanup operations by spraying jets of low pressure water to direct the oil away from the vegetation, but have been hampered by conditions the past two days.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officials say field reports show there are significant numbers of bird carcasses covered with oil on the shore of Skan Bay. Many of the carcasses have been eaten by gulls or bald eagles.

The number of carcasses won't be known until the weather clears enough for biologists to go ashore, according to the Fish and Wildlife Service.

A storm and gale warning has been issued for the Eastern Aleutians for Sunday, according to the National Weather Service, with winds later in the week forecast to gust higher than 50 knots and seas higher than 25 feet.

Officials were considering anchoring the response vessels for safety.

Responders on Saturday also were unable to board the remains of the Selendang Ayu. A lightering team has been hired to remove fuel from the stern of the freighter by pumping it into 2,000-gallon containers and transporting it by heavy-lift helicopter.

The bow section was determined to be unsafe for a similar operation, but officials say the team will examine whether the fuel there can be removed another way.



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