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Aleutian tugboat rescue continues, seafood cargo likely safe

Jim PaulinDutch Harbor Fisherman

While the tugboat Polar Wind took a beating and spilled fuel when it ran aground, no people or wildlife were reported harmed, and the same goes for about 1.5 millions pounds of frozen seafood including halibut, cod, pollock and surimi, according to Steven Russell of the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation.

Russell said the fish stayed frozen at minus 15 degrees Fahrenheit for two weeks on the rocks at Ukolnoi Island near Cold Bay, though the seafood could be inspected when it arrives in Unalaska/Dutch Harbor on Northland Services barge Nushagak Trader, after the at-sea transload from the grounded barge Unimak Trader.

Russell said DEC seafood inspectors might take a look inside the 40-foot-long refrigerated vans.

“They may want to open up a few containers and see if there’s any indications of thawing,” he said.

Russell said Magone Marine Service crews from Unalaska are on the scene to salvage the tug and barge.

In addition to Northland’s two landing craft, and Magone’s salvage vessels, Russell said small King Cove fishing boats around 58 feet long also assisted.

King Cove Mayor Henry Mack said four local fishing boats assisted, including the Aleut Mistress, Northern Star, and Miss Roxanne which carried divers and environmental responders, while the Melanie Sue performed sonar soundings.

On Tuesday, Mack said all the fuel and container vans had been removed from the Unimak Trader, and all that remained was the recovery of the two stranded vessels which had been transporting Trident Seafoods’ fish.

They’ve just got to get some good high tides, and hopefully get them off safely,” Mack said.

Stormy weather delayed the project.

“The weather conditions slowed the operation dramatically,” Russell said, reporting winds speeds of over 40 miles per hour most of the time. The wind caused problems mainly for vessels traveling from King Cove across Pavlof Bay, although it was relatively calm at the grounding scene on the island’s south side, sheltered from the north winds, Russell said.

Last week, Mayor Mack said, the winds kicked up to over 100 miles an hour, and the small fishing boat responders had to seek shelter, extending what was usually a two-hour trip to four days to travel from King Cove to Ukolnoi. The tug Polar Wind and barge Unimak Trader grounded on the south side of Ukolnoi Island, located approximately 200 miles east-northeast of Dutch Harbor and 40 miles east of Cold Bay at approximately 9:00 p.m. Nov. 13. The grounding was reported to the U.S. Coast Guard at approximately 10:00 p.m. and ADEC was notified at approximately 11:00 p.m. the same day.

An assessment team boarded the Polar Wind on Nov. 21 and estimated that 6,000 gallons of diesel fuel were lost. It is suspected that this fuel was lost between the grounding and November 16th. The barge Unimak Trader has an estimated 200 gallons on-deck fuel stores for the crane, forklift and generators located on the deck. Operational quantities of hydraulic and lubricating oils remain on both vessels.

The tug and barge were traveling from Sand Point to Dutch Harbor when they grounded. An investigation as to the cause of the grounding is ongoing by the U.S. Coast Guard and Northland Services. Containment and sorbent boom are being maintained around the Polar Wind. The barge Unimak Trader has deck cargo and heavy equipment on board but there are no indications this equipment poses an environmental threat. At the time of the grounding, the barge Unimak Trader carried 97 refrigerated containers; 33 of which contained over 1,475,000 pounds of frozen seafood products, 64 containers were empty.

Northland Services removed diesel fuel and lube oils from the Polar Wind. An anchor has been positioned at the stern of the Polar Wind to help secure the vessel in place during the salvage operation. Divers conducted a survey of the hull of the Unimak Trader on the night of Nov, 25 and discovered significant damage to the starboard side and bottom of the vessel.

All containers holding frozen seafood were transferred to the barge Nushagak Trader and their contents have been maintained at minus 15 degrees Fahrenheit throughout the event. At one point, the electricity generator was refueled on the grounded barge.

There are no reported impacts to wildlife. The area is used by waterfowl for overwintering including the Stellar’s eiders, which are listed as a threatened species on the Endangered Species Act (ESA). Sea otters are also present; this population is listed as a threatened species on the ESA. Harbor seals are present in the area. The grounding is within the designated critical habitat for Stellar sea lions and the southwest sea otter critical habitat.

Perhaps owing to very stormy weather, wildlife weren’t much in evidence, Russel said, reporting “very little reports of wildlife throughout the operation,” with no reports of sea otter or sea lions, and some, though not many, birds.

For additional information contact: Steven Russell, State On-Scene Coordinator, ADEC (907) 262-3401, or http://dec.alaska. gov/spar/polarwind

The preceding report was first published by The Bristol Bay Times-Dutch Harbor Fisherman and is republished here with permission.