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Aleutian Isle fishing vessel still underwater 10 days later

Crews unable to remove the ship that sank near San Juan Island

Divers have struggled to remove fuel containers from the Aleutian Isle
Divers have struggled to remove fuel containers from the Aleutian Isle (Photo courtesy of the Washington State Department of Ecology)
By Julia Lerner Staff Reporter

Ten days after it sank, the Aleutian Isle is still on the seafloor. 

The 49-foot fishing vessel, which sank off the west coast of San Juan Island on Aug. 13, is sitting in waters around 200 feet deep. Specialized gear will be required to remove it.

Salvage crews are waiting for equipment from Seattle to begin the process, which will require a crane and a barge to lift it off the seafloor. 

Representatives from the Unified Command, made up of the United States Coast Guard (USCG), the Washington State Department of Ecology, the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community and several environmental agencies, are hopeful they’ll be able to begin raising the vessel later this week. 

“We’re looking to have this started up again in the next few days,” said Petty Officer Steve Strohmaier, a USCG spokesperson in Seattle. “In the meantime, we have our partner agencies out there monitoring the situation.” 

When the vessel sank, it had about 2,500 gallons of diesel and another 100 gallons of motor oil and other oils on board, and continues to slowly release fuel while the Unified Command works to remove it from the Salish Sea. 

“The fuel tanks on board are more or less intact,” Strohmaier said. “There are small, sort of burps that the tanks will have in a given day, and release a little amount of diesel that will come up and start sheening on the top of the water.” 

Diesel is a very thin fuel that dissipates quickly, but can leave a sheen on top of the water while it evaporates. On  Aug. 22, the Unified Command reported more than 4,300 feet of boom had been placed around the site to control the spill, though it’s mostly precautionary, Strohmaier said, as sheening had been minimal. 

The spill was initially a major cause of concern for environmental advocates, who worried about the short- and long-term impacts of a fuel spill on marine life and the nearby, endangered Southern Resident orca population. 

“There’s still the threat of a larger spill,” said Lovel Pratt, the marine protection and policy director at Friends of the San Juans, a group protecting the land and water around San Juan Island. “The oil that’s still aboard the vessel hasn’t been secured or recovered, so as long as the boat still has oil products aboard, there’s a risk.”

Strohmaier said the fuel tanks cannot be removed until the vessel itself is out of the water. 

“We want to get this vessel and all these contaminants out of the water as fast as possible,” he said Tuesday afternoon. Salvage teams will be “able to remove all that oil once it’s on the barge and in a much safer spot.” 

Though the ship remains underwater and response crews are monitoring the area, commercial traffic has not been impacted by the Aleutian Isle spill. 

“There’s a 1,000-yard safety zone around the Coast Guard vessels and any of the salvage vessels that are working,” Strohmaier said. “Because the safety zone is so close to land and close to San Juan Island, it doesn’t impede the commercial traffic. The large container ships and tankers, they’re able to still freely go.” 

The vessel is part of a fleet owned by the Swinomish Tribe, the Coast Guard said, and the Unified Command is still investigating what caused the vessel to sink. 

For more information, visit the Department of Ecology’s Aleutian Isle Response website. To report any oiled wildlife, call 1-800-22-BIRDS.

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