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AK MARITIME: Shipwreck Threatens Key Wildlife Habitat
10 Region, December 14, 2004
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On Friday, December 10, 2004, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service responded to the grounding of the 738-foot cargo vessel M/V Selendang Ayu, off Unalaska Island in the Aleutian Islands. The vessel, carrying approximately 483,000 gallons of heavy bunker fuel oil and 21,000 gallons of diesel fuel, ran aground and broke apart on December 8. Six of the vessel's crew members were lost in the rescue effort. The vessel is located between Skan Bay and Spray Cape on the western shore of Unalaska. The area is accessible only by water or air. The lands in the spill area are managed as part of the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge, one of 544 refuges in the National Wildlife Refuge System. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Regional Spill Response Coordinator is directing the Service response from Dutch Harbor, Alaska. The shoreline habitat in the vicinity includes sheltered rocky shores and gravel beaches. The Service is working to determine which fish and wildlife resources may be at risk from the oil. Various waterfowl, seaducks and seabirds winter in the sheltered bays and nearshore waters of Unalaska Island, including emperor geese, loons, scoters, goldeneyes, eiders, harlequin duck, scaup, pigeon guillemot, auklets, murrelets, cormorants, and kittiwakes. Resident bald eagles and ravens may scavenge on oiled birds that might wash ashore. Shoreline habitats in Skan Bay and Makushin Bay include salt-brackish water marshes, eelgrass beds, and tidal flats that are important feeding areas for shorebirds and waterfowl during the spring and summer.

Significant progress was made on Sunday, December 12. Booms were deployed in Makushin Bay's Portage and Cannery Bays and Naginak Cove. Areas being boomed currently include freshwater stream mouths in Volcano Bay, on the north side of Makushin Bay. These streams connect nearby freshwater lakes to the ocean. Besides these, the most environmentally sensitive areas appear to be Anderson Bay because of large concentrations of birds, and salmon spawning streams in various other locations. The calmer, colder conditions and the presence of ice at the heads of the smaller bays has caused some of the waterfowl concentrations to move elsewhere, but it is not yet known where these birds went.

To date, the ability of the Fish and Wildlife Service to evaluate the scope of the situation has been limited by short days and high seas. As a result, biologists believe that the fish and wildlife impacts may well be much greater than the relatively few oiled birds and marine mammals recovered so far.

More than 20 Fish and Wildlife Service employees spent Saturday and Sunday (December 18-19) undergoing extensive hazardous operations training. Five of these employees, representing four refuges and the Office of Law Enforcement, are headed for Dutch Harbor. They will be spending several weeks assessing damage and participating in cleanup efforts. Other trained personnel will relieve them in mid January. On Monday, December 20, Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge, which manages much of the land affected by the spill, sent its 120-foot research vessel, the M/V Tiglax (?TEK-la?) from Homer to Dutch Harbor. The Tiglax will serve as a floating research platform for teams of wildlife biologists representing the Service, NOAA, and the State of Alaska. Researchers will attempt to go ashore to document beach areas and wildlife resources impacted by the spill. Oiled wildlife will be noted as encountered. The Tiglax itself will conduct open-ocean surveys within and adjacent to the spill area to evaluate the numbers of marine birds present in off-shore areas.

Despite the relatively small numbers of oiled birds recovered so far, biologists remain concerned about the potential for wildlife damage from this spill. In the brief section of shoreline in Skan Bay that Service personnel have been able to adequately access, either by actually putting ashore or by running their skiffs close enough to shore for productive observation, the impacts observed have been significant. The numbers and varieties of wildlife that already have been, or potentially could be, impacted are huge. The Christmas bird count in Dutch Harbor, for example, routinely identifies more than 70 species of birds, many in concentrations numbering in the hundreds. Most of these species can be expected to occur in the spill area as well. As, of course, do sea otters and other marine mammals, as well as fresh and saltwater fish and other marine species.

Contact Info: Kevin Painter, , kevin_painter@fws.gov



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