Fuel from shipwreck closes crab fishery

Tests showing that thick brown fuel oil has fouled the sea floor where the freighter Selendang Ayu broke apart on Unalaska Island three weeks ago have prompted the state to close the area to commercial fishing.
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Most affected will be Tanner crab fishermen from nearby Unalaska who were to begin work Jan. 15.
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They had hoped to catch a quota of 175,000 pounds - a pittance compared with the big-boat king and snow crab fisheries of the Bering Sea, but an important source of winter income to the small local fleet, said Forrest Bowers, of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.
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The closure came as little surprise to most fishermen, Bowers said. Since the ship ran aground and broke up Dec. 8, he said, “I think many of them had it in mind that this could happen, and was probably likely.”
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Over the weekend, crab pots stuffed with absorbent material were dunked in Makushin Bay to see whether any of the ship’s 424,000 gallons of heavy bunker oil had sunk to the bottom. Six of 21 pots came up oiled.
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“The state has a zero tolerance policy on contamination of seafood,” Bowers said. A single oil-smudged crab could devastate the state’s reputation as a source of pristine seafood and cost Alaska fishermen millions of dollars in sales.
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Also Monday, the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation declared the spill area a “threatened water body.” The agency cited oil on the water and beaches, and noted that additional spills could occur as salvage experts attempt to remove oil still on the ship this week.
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The fishing closure is not expected to compromise the big Bering Sea snow crab fishery, which also begins Jan. 15. That fleet should harvest 20 million pounds this year. The boats fish far to the north, Bowers said, and will not even pass through the oil spill area on their way into Unalaska to deliver.
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The closure announced Monday will keep all fishing boats out of Makushin and Skan bays until further notice. The area is rich in bottomfish and cod, but is most popular with crabbers, Bowers said. It is one of just two areas that Unalaska boats can fish for bairdi Tanner crab, though it had been closed for a decade due to low stocks.