FRIDAY HARBOR, Wash. - The Aleutian Isle, a 50-plus foot boat that sank off the coast of San Juan Island, is back above water after a weeks-long salvage operation to bring the boat back from the Salish Sea floor.
The boat remained in the water for more than five weeks, with several hiccups along the way during recovery. At first, the boat shifted to deeper waters. Later, nets unspooled and caused hazards for dive teams tasked with plugging the ship as it still had oil and diesel inside. Finally, the boat had to be towed half-submerged because the area was too dangerous to work in, yet the boat was too heavy with water trapped inside to lift.
While the saga comes to an end, the next steps will involve reviewing what went right and what went wrong with the oil spill response and salvage operation.
Killer whale experts were alarmed in the early days of the sinking, because nearly every single endangered Southern Resident killer whale was near the west side of the island when the ship went down. There was frustration over whether the whales would swim through the oil spill site as it visibly spread out 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, Washington Department of Ecology, the Swinomish Tribe, Islands’ Oil Spill Association, National Marine Fisheries Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Of particular concern for whale biologists in the early days: how long it took to train and prepare people for whale deterrence, utilizing what are known as ‘oikomi pipes’ to haze whales and force them out of the area if they got too close to the oil slick on the surface.
In the initial week of the response, a spokesperson for the Coast Guard called the clean-up efforts to place booms—large contraptions that can trap or soak up diesel—reasonably fast.
"Biologically, that’s too long," said Monika Wieland Shields, founder of Orca Behavior Institute. "It’s shocking to hear 40 to 48 hours is a good response time."
Those who work in Emergency Management say there’s been confusion over the oil spill response, and the salvage operation which took much longer. Due to the dangerous location of the sunken vessel and difficult tides, divers were in a tough spot that involved using specialized gas to dive to the great depths the vessel had sunk too. They also could only spend a limited amount of time underwater, and were forced to use a decompression chamber that had to be shipped in.
CONCERN FOR THE "BIG ONE"
While the Aleutian Isle situation comes to a close, there’s added concern about what a large-scale spill could mean for the endangered Southern Resident killer whales that rely on the San Juans as part of their annual pattern of fishing.
This spill, by NOAA standards, is a small-scale spill. The ship went down with roughly 2,600 gallons of diesel and oil. Some of that made it into the water, while a portion was recovered during salvage operations.
Large spills, like the Exxon-Valdez spill of 1989, are the real concern. That spill involved 11 million gallons of oil at Prince Williams Sound. That spill has functionally killed off a pod of killer whales that were exposed to the spill. The whales remain, but they’re unlikely to rebound in numbers.
Part of the reason the Southern Resident killer whales were initially 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 preferred prey, chemical pollution and vessel noise are also concerns.
As researchers at Friends of the San Juans note, we are seeing a larger number of vessels navigating the Salish Sea. Projections the group keep expect those numbers to climb rapidly due to a number of large projects that will be coming online in the coming years, including the Trans Mountain Pipeline expansion.
Catastrophic spills are considered "low probability, high impacts." Essentially, those in Emergency Management say they’re least likely to happen, but will have significant damage to habitat if they occur. Those who are tracking the increasing vessel traffic note that the probability is climbing as more and more traffic is greenlit for the Salish Sea.
Lovel Pratt, who tracks vessel projections, said two major projects could see a 25% increase in large tankers or cargo ships in the coming years.
Friends of the San Juans latest vessel traffic projection identified 22 new or expanding terminal and refinery projects that have been proposed or permitted or were recently completed. (Friends of the San Juans)
"Whenever there is an increase in vessel traffic, there’s an increase in accident and oil spill risk," said Pratt.
Brendan Cowan, the emergency response management director for both the county and Friday Harbor, told FOX 13 that the best option is to avoid a spill altogether – that’s the goal of the state right now. In reality, a major spill is a major problem, regardless of what the response is.
"There’s no scenario with a significant spill in the Salish Sea where we can guarantee it can be contained and cleaned up 100%," admitted Cowan.
Cowan told FOX 13 that he felt like the initial oil spill response was something to be proud of, but said every group involved will be paying attention to areas of improvement. While no one thinks the Aleutian Isle sinking was a good thing, it did give people a chance to use whale deterrence, place booms in the water and determine what type of materials can be most beneficial.
"I think there are a lot of parallels between this incident and what we might see in a larger incident," said Cowan. "Challenges with whales. Challenges with the environment and nestled right up against the Canadian border."