Coast Guard leads investigation into sunken vessels



When it happened is uncertain — Christmas Eve or Christmas Day — but the F/V Leading Lady and F/V Kupreanof are now on the bottom of Jakolof Bay.

The reason for the sinking of the 53- and 58-foot wooden vessels, owned by Tim Barclay of Valdez, also is uncertain. There was a heavy snowfall in the area over the Christmas holiday, but whether that was the cause is unknown.

“Once we get them out of the water, we can take a look at them and see, but mostly we’re concerned about the aspect of removing the pollution threat right now. The investigation part is a separate process,” said Petty Officer Jonathan Alexander with the U.S. Coast Guard Marine Safety Detachment in Homer.

Report of the sinking was received by both the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation and the Coast Guard the afternoon of Dec. 25. The vessels were at anchor and tied together prior to sinking. They now are stacked one on top of the other. 

An assessment of the situation was done Saturday when MSD personnel and representatives of Global Salvage and Diving traveled to Jakolof Bay and divers were put in the water. It is estimated there was approximately 50 gallons of diesel aboard the vessels. Alexander said a rainbow sheen measuring 20 feet by 20 feet was observed spreading about 30 feet from the sunken vessels and approximately 240 yards from the nearest oyster bed.

The Leading Lady is completely submerged. The Kupreanof is almost completely submerged at high tide with portions of the stern visible at low tide. The vessels are out of the center of the channel and not deemed hazards to navigation.

No booms have been deployed due to currents and the vessels’ location beneath the surface.

“With these being sunken vessels, we don’t know where it (the diesel) could come up,” said Alexander.

Don Fritz, environmental program specialist with DEC, visited the site Tuesday and saw what he described as a “real light sheening” coming off one or both of the vessels and there was “definitely a smell of diesel.”

Regarding the use of booms, Fritz said, “Booming in this type of situation with those currents might be more for show and kind of an ugly show. What’s escaping at this point in time, Mother Nature’s got our back. We’re not losing enough that I see a need for any active response. We’d like to get the leakage stopped and give Mother Nature a break, but that’s the way I see it.”

The oyster farm closest to the vessels is Northern Lights Oyster Company, currently being purchased by Margo Reveil.

“The oysters will purge their systems quickly,” Reveil told the Homer News. “But the spat, the young oysters, are vulnerable, so whether or not we get a mortality from this event, we won’t know until next spring.”

As far as the oysters being safe for market, Reveil said they are tested by the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation to make sure they are petroleum-free and safe for consumption.

“Our biggest concern is if the pollutant stays in the water, then the mortality will be high,” said Reveil. “What we’re losing sleep over is if they decide to leave the boats in the water. Even if they get the majority of diesel off, everyone knows fishing boats have other pollutants. I would rather see them raise the boats and get them out of there.”

Fritz said his “gut instinct is that long-term ramifications from what we’re seeing released are insignificant. There’s no real threat to those oyster farms. The oysters are below water. The fuel’s going to float on the water. … If I was looking to buy an oyster farm there right now, I wouldn’t let this enter my thought process.” 

Fritz said he walked Jakolof Bay beaches on Tuesday.

“I probably saw up and down the beach less than a half cup of oil,” he said. “I can’t say I was there at the worst time, but there was very little product up against the beach face.”

Alexander said Global Salvage and Diving is preparing a plan to safely remove the diesel from the vessels. Once that plan is in action, Fritz plans to be back on site.

“Personally, I think it’s a bad situation that we have these two vessels sunk, but the environmental harm, I think, is pretty minimal,” said Fritz. “Once Global comes up with a plan … I’d like to get back over there while they’re implementing the plan or at the end of it so we can pretty much put this to bed.”

McKibben Jackinsky can be reached at mckibben.jackinsky@Homernews.com.

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