A stateless vessel crawling with rats was on its way Friday to Dutch Harbor after the Coast Guard boarded it for illegal driftnet fishing on the high seas.
The Bangun Perkasa, which has its crew and the Coast Guard boarding team still aboard, has been in transit to Dutch Harbor since it was seized on Sept. 15 in international waters more than 2,600 miles southwest of Kodiak. The Coast Guard said the vessel won't be allowed into the port of Dutch Harbor until the rats on board have been wiped out.
The Bangun Perkasa was about 25 nautical miles north of Adak on Friday with an escort from the Coast Guard cutter Midgett. They are waiting out bad weather and could reach the Dutch Harbor area today if the weather cooperates.
"They will remain offshore while the rat population is eradicated -- we certainly don't want to cause an infestation of an invasive species," said Coast Guard Petty Officer Sara Francis. "It could take up to a week to confirm that the rats have been dealt with."
The Coast Guard caught the Bangun Perkasa with more than 10 miles of illegal driftnet, 30 tons of squid and about 30 shark carcasses on board. Driftnet fishing indiscriminately kills massive amounts of fish and other marine life, such as whales and turtles, with enormous nets suspended for miles in open water.
"This method of fishing is illegal, despicable and shows complete disregard for the world's ecosystem, and the joint effort of the many Pacific nations shows our dedication to ending this barbaric practice, enforcing maritime law and being good stewards of the environment," said Capt. Gregory Sanial, chief of enforcement for the Coast Guard's Alaska district.
The Bangun Perkasa was fishing closer to Japan than to the United States. An aircraft crew from Fisheries Japan first spotted the vessel Aug. 31 and saw it was equipped for high-seas driftnet fishing. The Japanese alerted U.S. authorities.
The United States has an agreement with Japan and other nations to cooperate in the enforcement of illegal fishing in international waters of the North Pacific.
The Kodiak-based Coast Guard cutter Munro intercepted the Bangun Perkasa on Sept. 7 and launched a MH-65 Dolphin helicopter.
The Bangun Perkasa's crew was spotted trying to cut their fishing nets and leave the area once they saw the helicopter, according the Coast Guard. The Coast Guard contacted the master, who claimed that the vessel was flagged Indonesian.
A call went out to Indonesian authorities.
"Indonesia came back to us and said, 'Nope, not ours,' " Francis said. "That's when we went through the procedures to seize the vessel."
Francis said she didn't know the nationalities of all the 22 crew members on board the Bangun Perkasa but believes the captain claimed to be Taiwanese. Such vessels often employ a mixture of nationalities on board as crew members.
"They were carrying driftnets, which is prohibited gear. They didn't have any permits to fish, didn't have any licenses to fish and they weren't recording their catch. So, a variety of issues," she said.
The Coast Guard boarding team retrieved the nets the crew was trying to abandon and started the long trip to Dutch Harbor, discovering the rats on the way.
This is an unusual case. The Coast Guard's Francis said her agency has used "high endurance cutters" from along the West Coast to intercept several vessels in the past few years that were illegally fishing with driftnets on the high seas.
"But this is the first one that's turned up stateless. The rest were escorted back to whatever country they had as their flag state," Francis said. "A lot of them were Chinese, for example, and we escorted them to offshore of China and one of their cutters took over and their government handled the prosecution."
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Alaska law enforcement office will do the investigation into the Bangun Perkasa's alleged illegal fishing "as well as into those behind and profiting from this unlawful activity."
The findings will be turned over the U.S. Attorney's Office.
Reach Sean Cockerham at email@example.com or 257-4344.
By SEAN COCKERHAM
Anchorage Daily News