Regulators halt fisheries near Bering Sea oil spill

AP PHOTO/U.S. Coast Guard

A portion of the the Selendang Ayu (lower right) sticks out of the water off of Unalaska Island near Unalaska, Dec. 23. Days of stormy weather in the Bering Sea caused the bow section to sink and the Coast Guard has little hope that any of the fuel tanks in the bow section remain intact. The spilled oil from the freighter has prompted state officials to halt all commercial fishing in the Bering Sea near the wreckage.
AP PHOTO/U.S. Coast Guard
ANCHORAGE - State regulators have halted all commercial fishing in the Bering Sea near the wreckage of a grounded freighter where fuel oil has contaminated the water.

The state Division of Commercial Fisheries order affects the Makushin Bay and Skan Bay tanner crab fishery, which had been scheduled to open to fishermen Jan. 15. Also closed will be Pacific cod, black rockfish and fisheries for other groundfish that would have opened Jan. 1.

The closed state waters stretch from Spray Cape to Cape Kovrizhka along the western side of Unalaska Island, about 800 miles southwest of Anchorage.

Between the two capes lies the wreckage of the 738-foot Selendang Ayu, which has been leaking oil and diesel since it wrecked there Dec. 8. An estimated 424,000 gallons of intermediate fuel oil and 18,000 gallons of diesel were on board; more than 210,000 gallons is presumed lost.

Denby Lloyd, regional supervisor for the Division of Commercial Fisheries, said 10 of 21 test crab pots retrieved on Dec. 27 had some sign of oil contamination.

Lloyd said he did not know how long the fisheries’ season would be delayed, or if they would be closed for the entire season.

The tanner crab fishery, with a harvest set at about 171,000 pounds this season, was scheduled to last until March.

"The fishing area has been closed until further notice," Lloyd said. "Although it’s possible it will be cleared, we’re not sure it is very likely."

Lloyd said the state has a zero-tolerance policy that requires fisheries to be closed where there is a threat of contamination.

The closure is likely to affect 20-30 vessels that fish the area, according to Henry Mitchell, executive director of the Bering Sea Fisherman’s Association.

Mitchell declined to estimate the economic impact on shutting down the fisheries, although he said the eastern Bering Sea is one of the world’s most productive habitats for fish and shellfish.

"I’m sure the Department of Fish and Game is acting on the best science and intelligence and made that decision for the protection of the resource," he said. "We’re not going to second-guess that decision."

IMC Shipping, the Singapore-based operator of the freighter, has hired an adjuster to take claims from commercial fishermen who had planned to participate in the fishery, Lloyd said.

The area will remain closed until monitoring by the state Department of Environmental Conservation shows the threat of contamination is gone. The closed area may also be expanded if contamination spreads.

01/01/2005 - 8:00pm