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Raft of rats on vessel in Aleutians draws ire of exterminator

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Who you gonna call when rats threaten to invade Unalaska? 

The Aleutian Solution.

That's the nickname for Dan Magone, the marine salvage expert who for years has lived on the storm-socked island 800 miles southwest of Anchorage. When wayward ships plow into beaches, Magone's your man.

But salvage means more than repairing and dismantling vessels. Magone’s an exterminator, too, using weaponry ranging from poison to firearms to attack when rat-infested vessels show up. State law prohibits vessels with known rat populations from entering state waters and Magone is state-certified to use pesticides and other means to kill them.

“We're the SWAT team to make sure the rats don't get off the ship -- and if they do, they don't get off beach,” he said. 

So when the Coast Guard seized the stateless Bangun Perkasa for illegal fishing recently, officials found rats along with tons of illegally caught shark and squid. They escorted the ship to Unalaska and called on Magone.

His Aleutian Solution? Blow it sky high, vermin and all, and let the bits sink to the ocean floor.

Or in his words: “Nuke it from orbit. I'm totally serious.” 

Most Americans know Unalaska as Dutch Harbor, the Aleutian Islands fishing port made famous by the Discovery Channel. But before "The Deadliest Catch," there were rats. Loads  of them -- aggressive Norway rats.

They're still around. But these rats aren't just pests. Big ones stretch a foot long, tails not included.

Invasion of the rats

In the Aleutian Islands, one of the world's most important nesting grounds for seabirds, they're an invasive species. They feed on eggs and wipe out migratory bird populations more effectively than any oil spill ever could, Magone said. And they're scavengers that gnaw through electric wires and ransack food supplies in boats, houses, and buildings.

Over the centuries in the island chain, mobs of the creatures have spilled onto beaches and piers as ships ran aground on shoals. Today, they hide on internationally flagged ships that make pit-stops in the Aleutian Chain.

In the early 1990s, Magone helped stop oil leaking from a small Korean-flagged freighter named the Chilbosan that had smashed up against the north side of Unalaska. By the time his crew arrived, the rats had been running wild for weeks.

His men set down a 10-pound package of poison. The animals devoured it in hours, including the packaging. But there were plenty more.

Magone's brother worked on the ship and slammed a wrench against a rat scurrying across a pipe. An engineer working below the pipe ended up with a rat tail down the back of his shirt.

“He wasn't happy,” Magone said.

Residents in the Bering Sea's small communities have long been at war with the predators. On aptly named Rat Island where a shipwreck dumped rats more than 200 years ago, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service spent millions to poison the rats there, using helicopters to drop the toxin. In 2009 it proclaimed rat-free victory, allowing migratory birds to regain a claw-hold after years of decimation.

People have waged their own battle on the Pribilof Island of St. Paul north of Unalaska, peppering the port with rat traps designed to snare the rodents as they leave ships.

Ridding Unalaska of rats isn't so easy. The biggest community in the chain with a population that swells to several thousand during busy fishing seasons, people can't just leave poison bait around. That could end up killing cats and dogs, maybe even poisoning children.

Sport hunting rats: An Unalaska past-time

Magone, who arrived in Unalaska in the late 1970s, said his first night on the island included a tour of the dump with a longtime resident. They carried .22-caliber rifles in search of rats because that's what Unalaskans did for sport.

“That was big entertainment back in the day,” Magone said.

That's no longer an option. With more law enforcement on the island today, you'd get thrown in jail for shooting at the dump.

How many rats live on the island? Hard to say. Numbers were much higher in the past, many say. Legend suggests they were bigger, too. Longtime resident Abi Woodbridge tells stories of how she once trapped the critters and then sewed fur hats with their pelts to give as gifts. “As big as cats” is how she described them.

They're still abundant, said Charlie Medlicott, a U.S. Coast Guard fishing vessel safety examiner on the island. Not long ago, he shooed one from his car -- it found a crack somewhere in the junker. Others have invaded shipping vans where the Coast Guard stores supplies and rations.

Every couple of years, Medlicott hears rats scratching in the crawl space beneath his house, but $50 tubs of heavy-duty rat poison do the trick.

“When you start seeing rat turds, it's like, ‘Uh-oh,’ ” he said.

“The whole island's lousy with rats,” Magone added.

Magone has been meeting daily with Coast Guard officials, local tribal officials and others who want him on the Bangun Perkasa as soon as possible.

The Coast Guard says it will keep the stateless vessel 3 miles from Unalaska until the rats are gone. Eradication is set to begin once the crew has been removed from the ship.

That effort began Monday, when law officers, including agents with the National Marine Fisheries Service, began moving the ship's 22 crewmembers to Unalaska.

From there, the crew heads to Anchorage where they'll be interviewed by NMFS agents and customs officers, said Julie Speegle, a spokeswoman for the agency. The ship's officers had originally said it was flagged in Indonesia, but the country had no such record so it was determined to be stateless. The crew speaks five foreign languages, including Chinese, Taiwanese and Vietnamese, she said.

Officials in the meetings have expressed a lot of concern, Magone said. If Norway rats are on board the Bangun Perkasa, and they somehow make it past the beaches, there could be trouble.

“You don't want them ashore because they can carry disease and cause other problems. They're not going to increase the amount of physical damage on the island, but they could improve the gene pool,” Magone said.

He'll try rat traps first, the sticky and snapping kind. If that doesn't work, he’ll try poison. To make sure they're gone, he'll lay out scented candles. Rats love to gnaw on those.

If all goes well, it may take up to a week to kill them all, said Sara Francis, a Coast Guard spokeswoman.

Contact Alex DeMarban at alex(at)alaskadispatch.com