Sunken boat creates spill in San Juans, concern for resident orcas

Ship sinks, creates spill

U.S. Coast Guard and federal fisheries officers responded to a sunken fishing vessel Saturday off San Juan Island in Haro Strait, critical habitat for the endangered southern resident killer whales that are reportedly in the area.

The 49-foot boat went down west of Sunset Point with an estimated 9,800 litres of diesel and oil on board, said the United States Coast Guard Pacific Northwest district.

Sunset Point is about 30 nautical miles from Sidney, across the international boundary.

All crew on board were rescued by a good Samaritan, the coast guard said.

There were immediate concerns that the spill would affect the southern resident killer whale, whose population has struggled and is down to just 74 animals.

The Washington state-based Orca Network, which monitors the orcas in their traditional summer feeding area in the Salish Sea, said in a social media post almost all of the orcas “showed up and are a short distance south of the spill.”

The U.S. Coast Guard is co-ordinating with San Juan Island-based Sound Watch and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to monitor the location of the orcas and is ready to keep the orcas away.

The coast guard said all agencies are “prepared to deploy authorized deterrents.”

Because orcas are acoustic animals, NOAA said using loud or annoying sounds is one way to keep the whales away from an area contaminated with oil.

Some of the methods that will likely be used if the orcas get too close include low-level helicopter flights to ward them away, or dipping long metal pipes into the water and banging them with hammers.

NOAA also considers underwater firecrackers, often called seal bombs, to deter the orcas. Ironically, the small charges were used in the 1960s and 1970s to help capture killer whales for public display in aquariums. “Now we are using historical knowledge of the whales’ behaviour during those captures to support conservation of the whales,” NOAA’s website said.

NOAA said the southern residents are a small and social population of killer whales, “so an oil spill could have major impacts on the entire population if they were in the wrong place at the wrong time.”

The Canadian Coast Guard said Sunday that ships and resources on this side of the border are on standby.

“The U.S. Coast Guard is the lead for this incident,” spokesperson Michelle Imbeau said in a statement. “However, the Canadian Coast Guard is working closely with the USCG and is ready to respond and ready to assist as required.”

The cause of the ship’s sinking wasn’t immediately known. The Aleutian Isle reported it was taking on water about 2 p.m. Saturday, the U.S. Coast Guard said.

Coast Guard Sector Puget Sound said personnel spotted an oil sheen about 2.4 kilometres in length about 5 p.m. Saturday.

Some of the sheen had entered Canadian waters, Petty Officer Michael Clark said Sunday.

The U.S. Coast Guard was working with the Canadian Coast Guard, the San Juan County Office of Emergency Management, Washington state Department of Ecology and the non-profit Islands’ Oil Spill Association to contain and recover the spill, Clark said.

U.S. Coast Guard Lt. Cmdr. Brian Dykens said in a statement: “We are working with government and industry partners to ensure an efficient and effective containment and recovery response. The public, the environment and protected marine species are our top priority.”

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