Coast Guard: No sign of spill in area where oiled wildlife was found

Kyle Hopkins

Investigating oiled wildlife found on St. Lawrence Island, a U.S. Coast Guard plane on Thursday found no signs of an oil spill along the Bering Sea island coast or surrounding waters.

The HC-130 combed about 345 miles of St. Lawrence Island shoreline Thursday afternoon before extending the search toward the Bering Strait and north toward Shishmaref, said Petty Officer David Mosley.

"(They) found no evidence of maritime pollution," Mosley said.

St. Lawrence Island residents have discovered several animals this fall -- including at least four birds and a spotted seal -- that appeared to have traveled through some kind of oil, Mosley said. Another oiled seal was found on Labor Day near Shishmaref on the Seward Peninsula, he said.

The source of the oil remained a mystery Friday.

A team from the Coast Guard and state Department of Environmental Conservation was scheduled to fly to St. Lawrence Island today. The group will meet with a U.S. Fish and Wildlife representative and local guides to begin searching the coastline for sources of the oil on Saturday, if weather allows, Mosley said.

"We need to get our folks on scene, talk with people who made the reports and start searching the beaches," Mosley said.

It's unclear how many animals are affected. No spills or sunken ships have been reported in the area, Mosley said.

Russian authorities have told the Coast Guard there is no ongoing oil spill response or recent mishaps in Russian waters, he said.

The first discovery came in September, on Labor Day, when a spotted seal killed by a subsistence hunter near Shishmaref was found to have some kind of oil on it, Mosley said. The second seal was taken by a hunter near Gambell -- about 230 miles away -- around Oct. 26, he said.

The animals had oil on their bellies but were not coated in oil, Mosley said.

Three common murres that also appeared to have traveled through oil were found on Sunday near Gambell and reported to the Coast Guard on Wednesday, Mosley said. One of the common murres was harvested for testing and two were seen swimming off shore, according to the Coast Guard.

An oiled auklet was reported near Gambell on Tuesday, Mosley said.

The state Department of Conservation plans to test oil samples taken from the seal and one of the birds found on St. Lawrence Island and is awaiting samples from the seal taken near Shishmaref to determine the type of oil.

"We just don't know if there's a very isolated incident that's effected a few birds and a couple seals or it's something that could potentially be more impactful that we're going to need to address," Mosley said.

A caller reported "oil-covered birds and seals" as well as oil-soaked debris on St. Lawrence Island to the National Response Center on Wednesday, according to the Center.

Travis Akeya, of Savoonga, said hunters in the village are concerned about reports of common murres found with oil on their chest and oily rope washing up on the island shore.

A coalition, or unified command, including the Coast Guard, the state Conservation Department and the villages of Savoonga and Gambell are creating an advisory that will tell subsistence hunters what to do if they encounter more oiled wildlife, according to the DEC.

The area where the animals were discovered is an important habitat for eiders and other seabirds, as well as ringed and spotted seals, clams, crabs, orcas and other species, according to the state. Stellar sea lions are found in the area and are listed under the Endangered Species Act.

The Coast Guard says it has received no reports of oil found on any endangered species.

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