KENAI -- Although the Kang Sheng Kou heavy-lift vessel brought the Endeavour-Spirit of Independence jack-up rig to Cook Inlet waters from Singapore, the Endeavour rig might have carried its own unique cargo.
Alaska Department of Fish and Game officials confirmed Wednesday that they have been communicating with the rig's owner, Buccaneer Energy, about what organisms might have still been attached to the rig when it was brought north -- specifically if those organisms might be invasive to Kachemak Bay, where the rig has been receiving upgrades and work since Aug. 24.
Homer resident Larry Smith toured the rig several weeks ago and plucked a small shell he said appears to be a foreign oyster off one of the rig's legs and brought it to the attention of Fish and Game and the Kachemak Bay Research Reserve staff.
Smith said the shell was "one of thousands" in the area where he found it.
Tammy Davis, a Juneau-based Fish and Game biologist who leads the department's invasive species program, said the department offered to assist Buccaneer by taking samples of any organisms on the jack-up rig and identifying them.
"That came about apparently when there was a significant outcry by the public, several conservation organizations and the media had been informed that this organism had been taken off of the vessel by someone who was on a tour," Davis said.
However, Buccaneer in response hired a private biologist from a consulting agency to do that task, Davis said. Fish and Game has requested the results of those samples and biological analysis be forwarded to them for further review, she said.
Buccaneer issued a statement late Wednesday through Jay Morakis of JMR Worldwide, saying the company considered environmental safety a "top priority" and it would "never knowingly do anything to compromise it."
"We have passed both our customs inspection as well as Coast Guard inspection, and no environmental concerns have been raised by either organization," Morakis wrote in an email statement to the Clarion. "The issue of a 'photograph' of a 'shell' on the Endeavour came to our attention, and whether it be factual or not we immediately hired an independent biologist to board and inspect the Endeavour and confirm that there was not a problem.
"Initial findings show that (there) is no issue and we will issue the final results upon its completion, which we expect shortly."
Davis said Fish and Game officials are still considering what to do if the organism found was indeed an invasive species and posed a threat to the environment. But they can't do much until they know what the organisms onboard are, she said.
"The crux is, we don't know what's on (the rig)," she said.
Fish and Game's upper management has been in contact with the state attorney general's office.
It is against the law to "knowingly introduce" an invasive species into Alaska, specifically "fish, invertebrates and amphibians," she said.
"We haven't enforced that non-indigenous fish statute in this way, so we would want to make sure that we are doing so legitimately."
However, whether a company "knowingly" introduces an invasive species is hard to prove, she said.
"That's definitely where the water gets muddy," she said.
In addition, some of the organisms found on the rig may or may not be included in injurious species lists made and regulated by the federal government, Davis said.
"Very possibly, every single one of the species that are on that rig are not considered injurious and so the Lacey Act or any sort of federal regulation that would prohibit bringing in injurious species is sort of out the window," she said.
The penalty for an organization introducing an injurious species and violating the Lacey Act is a $10,000 fine, according to information found in a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service document published online.
Grant DeVuyst, a U.S. Coast Guard spokesman, said the Homer-based Coast Guard Marine Safety Detachment did inspect and clear both the Kang Sheng Kou and the Endeavour rig on Aug. 24. During such inspections, the Coast Guard looks for invasive species, he said. If a cleared vessel was found to later have introduced an invasive species into the ecosystem, DeVuyst said the Coast Guard could enforce applicable laws against the responsible company, but could not elaborate on what those laws could entail.
Davis said Fish and Game takes invasive or injurious species seriously because, in general, they can cause shifts in ecosystems and could prey upon, or compete for habitat with native species.
"Invasive species generally are very successful at reproducing and establishing viable populations," she said. "They tend to out-compete native species often because they either don't have a predator or just because their reproductive rate is high in comparison to native species."
Homer News reporter Michael Armstrong contributed to this report.