The operator of the trans-Alaska pipeline and Valdez tanker port is reporting a shortfall in the number of fishing boats ready to provide aid in the event of a Prince William Sound oil spill.
State regulators require the operator, Alyeska Pipeline Service Co., to contract with hundreds of fishing boats in Southcentral Alaska to be on call to help clean up oil spills.
In January, Alyeska said it had 20 fewer fishing vessels than required ready to respond to a tanker spill in Prince William Sound. But the shortfall may have been as high as 33 vessels, according to an oil-spill watchdog group.
In Prince William Sound, roughly 200 fishing boats must be ready to respond to a tanker spill, according to the state's mandatory spill response plan for North Slope crude oil tankers.
Alyeska revealed the shortage of fishing vessel responders to state regulators during an inspection in January. Since then, Alyeska has been on a recruiting push. On Friday, the company said its shortfall has dropped to five vessels.
Alyeska's fishing-vessel program has suffered for years due to low pay, lack of respect toward fishermen and the exclusion of them from decision making about the program, according to the Prince William Sound Regional Citizens' Advisory Council, the watchdog group.
Homer commercial salmon driftnetter John Velsko said only half of the vessels traditionally involved in Alyeska's spill-training exercises in the Homer area received training last year.
Velsko, a council board member who has been under contract with Alyeska for 12 years, said the company's pay rate has not kept pace with escalating vessel fees and insurance costs.
"In the past, fishing vessel owners have been doing this as a public service, but now the costs have become so high that they have a hard time justifying it," he said.
He said Alyeska has not granted a reasonable pay increase to the fishermen in 20 years.
"There's a long chain of evidence that the problem has been building for a while," said Stan Jones, the citizen council's spokesman. He said the council and fishing-boat captains have been warning Alyeska and regulators about problems with the program since 2005.
Among other signs that the program remains in trouble, according to the citizen council:
• A 2009 council survey of 150 boat captains showed only half of them could meet a requirement that they leave port to respond to a spill within 24 hours.
• Only 267 boats participated in spill-response training in 2009 compared to 328 in 2006.
Alyeska said Friday it instituted a temporary 10 percent pay increase for the vessels in the program to help boost participation.
Alyeska and the watchdog group plan to co-fund a study to explore the pay rate and other factors blamed for the decline in participation.
"The point of the study is to get a clear understanding of what will fix the problem," said Michelle Egan, an Alyeska spokeswoman.
John Kotula, who runs the marine vessels section for the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation, said his agency began discussing the shortfall with Alyeska on Jan. 26, days after a state inspection.
He said the department will investigate Alyeska's noncompliance with the oil tanker spill contingency plan.
The Prince William Sound, Kenai Peninsula and Kodiak fishing fleets have played a key role in responding to oil-spill emergencies ever since the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill.
Following the spill, state regulators required Alyeska to contract with the fishing vessel owners, compensating them both for their participation in training activities and responding to spills on the water.
Find Elizabeth Bluemink online at adn.com/contact/ebluemink or call 257-4317.