New York Times
December 30, 2004
A local crab-fishing season has been canceled and the estimated number of animals killed or injured by oil has sharply increased as a rare break in rough Bering Sea weather allows officials to gain a better sense of the damage from a large spill in the Aleutian Islands.
More than 355,000 gallons of fuel oil are now thought to have spilled from the freighter Selendang Ayu, which ran aground and split in two just off Unalaska Island on Dec. 8.
The island is home to the nation's largest commercial fishing port by volume, and the second-largest by value of annual catch, said Frank Kelty, resource analyst and former mayor of the city of Unalaska, which sits along the port, Dutch Harbor.
Unalaska's big commercial operations, which fish at some distance from the port, should be relatively unaffected by the cancellation of the local tanner crab season, which was to have begun on Jan. 15. But small-boat fishermen will be badly hurt, Mr. Kelty said, losing nearly $500,000 in revenue to the oil contamination that has deprived them of the area's biggest catch at this time of year.
"That's a sizable part of their annual income," he said. "It's a substantial impact."
The 738-foot Selendang Ayu was headed from Seattle to China carrying soybeans and about 480,000 gallons of fuel when its engines failed and fierce winds thwarted efforts by a rescue tug to keep it from running aground. Most members of the crew were saved, but six of them were killed when a Coast Guard rescue helicopter crashed into the sea. The bow half of the ship has since been tilted precipitously and almost fully submerged by gale-force winds.
Roughly 120,000 gallons of fuel and diesel oil remain in the vessel's stern half, which is still upright, and salvage crews hoped to take advantage of the relatively calm weather - which in the Bering Sea in late December means swells close to 10 feet and winds slightly less than gale force - to begin pumping that fuel out before it can spill.
But with gales expected to return today, pumping will not begin until tomorrow at the earliest, said Petty Officer Sara Francis, a Coast Guard spokeswoman.
Biologists have so far counted 109 bird carcasses and more than 600 birds coated with oil in the area around the wreck. But they expect that many more birds, perhaps thousands, have been killed.
"That's just a small inkling of what's actually out there," Petty Officer Francis said of the number counted. "It's a very large area, and the only way to get an accurate number is to walk all of the beach, and that won't happen until the spring."
And by then, she said, the carcasses will most likely have been devoured by the foxes and ravens that have been scavenging the area in large numbers, picking at the dead birds and almost certainly ingesting oil themselves.
The spill has brought recollections of the Exxon Valdez spill of 1989 in Prince William Sound. Experts say that if all of the Selendang Ayu's remaining oil ultimately leaks, this spill will be the worst for Alaska since then, though it will compare only distantly to the amount of oil lost by the Exxon Valdez - nearly 11 million gallons - and to the damage done in the sound.
Another recollection of that spill lingers among the fishermen whose livelihood has been affected by the Selendang Ayu, and who hope to be reimbursed by claims adjusters representing the vessel's operator, IMC Shipping, based in Singapore.
The adjusters have already set up shop in a hotel on Unalaska, Mr. Kelty said, but knowing that it often took a long time for fishermen affected by the Exxon Valdez spill to be reimbursed, the small-boat fishermen here are concerned about how swiftly their money will come.
"How this is working and the timeline before they get reimbursed," Mr. Kelty said, "I don't know yet."