FRIDAY PORT, Washington. – Aleutian Island, a 50ft-plus boat that sank off San Juan Island, is back above water after a week-long rescue operation to bring the boat back from the bottom of the Salish Sea.
The boat sat in the water for over five weeks, with several hiccups along the way during recovery. At first the boat moved to deeper waters. Later the nets unraveled and caused danger to the dive teams tasked with plugging the ship as there was still oil and diesel inside. Finally, the boat had to be towed half submerged as the area was too dangerous to work on, but the boat was too heavy with water trapped inside to lift.
As the saga draws to a close, the next steps will be to look at what went right and what went wrong with the oil spill response and rescue operation.
Orca experts were alarmed at the start of the sinking because nearly all of the endangered southern resident killer whales were near the west side of the island when the ship sank. There was frustration over whether whales would swim through the oil spill site as it visibly stretched for miles near the island.
The team responding to the incident involved everyone from the Emergency Management Team on the island (San Juan County), the U.S. Coast Guard, the Washington Department of Ecology, the Tribe Swinomish, the Islands Oil Spill Association, the National Marine Fisheries Service, and the US Fish and Wildlife Service.
A particular concern for whale biologists in the early days: how long it took to train and prepare people for whale deterrence, using so-called “oikomi pipes” to mist whales and force them to leave the area if they got too close to the oil slick on the surface.
In the first week of the response, a Coast Guard spokesperson called cleanup efforts to place booms — large devices that can trap or absorb diesel — fairly quickly.
“Biologically, that’s too long,” said Monika Wieland Shields, founder of the Orca Behavior Institute. “It’s shocking to hear that 40 to 48 hours is a good response time.”
Those who work in emergency management say there was confusion about the oil spill response and the rescue operation which took much longer. Due to the dangerous location of the sunken ship and the rough tides, the divers found themselves in a difficult situation which involved using specialized gas to dive into the great depths which the ship had also sunk. They could also only spend a limited amount of time underwater and were forced to use a decompression chamber that had to be dispatched.
CONCERN FOR THE “BIG”
As the Aleutian Island situation draws to a close, there is growing concern about what a large-scale spill could mean for the endangered Southern Resident Killer Whales that depend on the San Juans as part of their annual fishing pattern.
This spill, by NOAA standards, is a small-scale spill. The vessel sank with approximately 2,600 gallons of diesel and oil. Part fell into the water, while part was recovered during salvage operations.
Large spills, like the Exxon-Valdez in 1989, are the real concern. This spill involved 11 million gallons of oil in Prince Williams Sound. This spill functionally killed a pod of killer whales that were exposed to the spill. The whales remain, but are unlikely to rebound in numbers.
Part of the reason Southern Resident Killer Whales were originally listed as an endangered species is due to the risk of an oil spill in their critical habitat, which encompasses most of the Salish Sea. Their ability to hunt their favorite prey, chemical pollution and noise from ships are also of concern.
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As the Friends of the San Juans researchers note, we are seeing more ships sailing through the Salish Sea. The group’s projections expect these numbers to rise rapidly due to a number of major projects coming online in the coming years, including the Trans Mountain Pipeline expansion.
Catastrophic spills are considered “low probability, high impact”. Essentially, those in emergency management say they are the least likely to happen, but will suffer significant habitat damage if they do occur. Those who follow the increase in ship traffic note that the likelihood increases as more traffic is lit for the Salish Sea.
Lovel Pratt, who tracks ship projections, said two major projects could see a 25% increase in large tankers or freighters in coming years.
The latest Friends of San Juan marine traffic projection identified 22 new or expanding terminal and refinery projects that have been proposed or authorized or have recently been completed. (Friends of the San Juans)
“Any time there is an increase in ship traffic, there is an increase in the risk of accidents and oil spills,” Pratt said.
Brendan Cowan, director of emergency response management for the county and Friday Harbor, told FOX 13 that the best option is to avoid a spill altogether — that’s the state’s goal at this time. moment. In reality, a major spill is a major problem, regardless of the response.
“There is no scenario with a major spill in the Salish Sea where we can guarantee it can be 100% contained and cleaned up,” Cowan admitted.
Cowan told FOX 13 he felt the initial response to the oil spill was something he could be proud of, but said every group involved would pay attention to areas for improvement. Although no one thought the Aleutian Island sinking was a good thing, it gave people the ability to use whale deterrents, place dams in the water, and figure out what kind of materials can be the most beneficial.
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“I think there are a lot of parallels between this incident and what we might see in a larger incident,” Cowan said. “Challenges with the whales. Challenges with the environment and nestled right against the Canadian border.”