Tip sends rat patrol to Seward on wild-goose chase

Kyle Hopkins

In what the Department of Fish and Game is calling a first for the state, a trooper boarded a fishing boat in Seward on Thursday searching for vermin.

Literally. His mission: Find illegal rats.

Biologists and conservationists have been trying for years to keep the creatures from infesting any more Alaska harbors and towns. Think of this as an escalation in the war on rodents.

Seward is considered rat-free, and the state wants to keep it that way. Dutch Harbor -- where the boat arrived from -- is not.

When an anonymous tipster reported a rat sighting on the boat last week, the state pounced, armed with new laws that make it a Class A misdemeanor to carry the creatures into Alaska waters.

"(It's the) first time troopers have specifically looked for rats on any boat in Alaska," said Joe Meehan, lands and refuge program coordinator.

Rat control in Alaska is already serious business. There's even a Web site: www.stoprats.org.

This fall, biologists used helicopters to coat the aptly named Rat Island in the western Aleutians with toxic pellets in hopes of killing every last rat. The pellets use a kind of blood thinner -- similar to what humans take to combat heart disease.

It makes the rats bleed to death internally, Meehan said.

That might sound harsh until he tells you why governments try to curb rat infestations in the first place. They spread disease to other wildlife, contaminate food and drain millions in prevention and eradication money from government coffers. On islands, they can decimate bird populations by eating the eggs, the chicks and the adults alike.

Over the past year, the state has mailed out thousands of brochures and created an anti-rat plan. Getting the troopers involved is the next step.

Now, Fish and Game plans to routinely ask wildlife troopers to respond to rat reports. "It doesn't mean from now on we're going out heavy handed ... but it implies that we're serious about these laws," he said.

Created by the Board of Game in March of last year, the new rat rules say no vessel can enter Alaska waters with rats on board. On land, canneries, harbors and other buildings must have rat-control plans and kill the rodents if they can.

The state is still waiting to hand out its first ticket for illegal rats under the new laws.

Thursday's tip in Seward, where the local animal shelter sees more snakes and rabbits than pet rats, didn't pan out.

The trooper saw no sign of rats aboard the Dutch Harbor fishing boat and "noted the vessel was very clean and orderly, a condition not favored by rats," Meehan wrote.

Whoever ratted out the fishing boat might have been mistaken.

Seward harbor worker Norm Regis said harbor rocks are crawling with land otters that sometimes race across the parking lot. To Regis, their babies resemble rodents.

"You can just see them, they look like a bunch of rats running around."

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