Crabbers Remain in Limbo After Alaskan Oil Spill

With jeans matted with engine grease and boots sliding on the frozen deck, Greg Moyer hauled coils of rope off his boat and tried not to feel defeated.

Dec. 14—DUTCH HARBOR, Alaska — With jeans matted with engine grease and boots sliding on the frozen deck, Greg Moyer hauled coils of rope off his boat and tried not to feel defeated.

A bright and cloudless winter sky is too rare to waste, so he was using the clear weather yesterday to prep his 42-foot Northern Lights for crab season — a season he knows may end before it begins.

Plans are in limbo for dozens of Aleutian Islands crabbers as Alaska officials try to gauge whether last week's oil spill from the freighter Selendang Ayu has polluted their newly opened fishing grounds.

"What else am I going to do?" Moyer asked, tossing another load of rope into his pickup. "I've sunk thousands of dollars into this boat just for this season, and it's all on credit cards. This could be a disaster.

"But I have to act as if the season will still happen."

The season at risk is for Tanner crabs, a small fraction of a broader Bering Sea shellfish harvest that involves more than 250 vessels and yields millions of pounds of crab annually. Midway in both size and value between the giant king and smaller snow crab, the Tanner used to be an Unalaska Island staple until their low birthrates forced closures of the fisheries more than a dozen years ago.

But after a small opener this year, state officials were planning to open larger portions of Unalaska Island's Skan and Makushin bays for a short crabbing season starting Jan. 15, increasing the potential take from 90,000 to 170,000 pounds. (A pound of Tanner crab will fetch a fisherman about $3.)

For the island's small-boat fishermen, this was the first real chance in years to return to the crabbing derbies of old, when a few lucky local fishermen in weeks could outrace and outsmart competitors to make as much as a quarter of a year's income.

"It's pretty lucrative stuff," said crabber Roger Roland. "And there's nothing quite like coming around Cape Cheerful and feeling the full force of the Bering Sea."

It also offered a rare shot for a part-time fisherman like Moyer, who also works in construction, to get back on the water without having to spend months away from home.

"I was thinking my minimum this year was going to be $10,000," Moyer said. "If I filled up my fish hold a couple times, maybe $40,000. If I fished hard, and got lucky, who knows? It could have been a second Christmas."

But the wreck of the Malaysian-flagged Selendang Ayu has settled just off Skan Bay, at the toe of Unalaska Island's Tanner crab grounds with the second-highest yield. And winds are pushing currents into Makushin Bay, where the bulk of the crabs usually are found.

Coast Guard officials estimate at least 40,000 gallons of thick bunker oil have leaked from the Selendang Ayu since it went aground and broke in half Wednesday.

They believe that most of 420,000 gallons of oil and 18,000 gallons of diesel fuel carried by the wrecked ship still is contained within the ship's tanks.

Yesterday, cleanup crews spotted an estimated 2,000 gallons of floating oil near the wreckage.

But most of the oil was in light sheens of oil and tar balls, which skimmers were not able to pick up.

Ultimately, the size of the spill is likely to be determined by the fate of a possible attempt to empty tanks that still have fuel and to eventually remove the wreck from the bay.

"It is important to be clear that all options are being considered, but the one that is the most preferable is to remove the oil from the vessel before it is recovered," said Howard Hile, a contractor who represents the Selendang Ayu's owners.

The two pieces of the Selendang Ayu are sitting about one-quarter mile offshore in a bay racked by frequent storms. And pumping the thick molasseslike oil would not be an easy task.

Industry officials say the pumping operation often involves adding heat into the tanks to thin out the fuel and speed the pumping rate. And, the operation generally requires reasonable weather.

With tens of thousands of gallons of oil moving around in unknown ways underwater, Alaska Fish and Game officials can't yet say whether the Tanner crabbing season will take place.

"We don't know how much oil is down there, if it's sinking, if it's dissipating, if it's in the crab grounds, or what," state biologist Forrest Bowers said yesterday from his office, which looks out on the snow-capped mountains towering above Unalaska Bay.

"And who knows what that broken vessel's going to do in coming weeks?"

Crabbers who are squeezed out of their season by an oil spill could be eligible to file damage claims, said Coast Guard Capt. Ron Morris, incident commander for the spill.

For some local fishermen, such as Dustan Dickerson, the return to Unalaska Island crabbing could help make up for 30 percent reductions in recent years on his quota for cod and halibut.

But with most Bering Sea crabbing now done by hundreds of large commercial vessels — and now that Congress recently traded in the dangerously intense, round-the-clock Bering Sea king-crab derby for a more-traditional quota system — it also was a chance for small operators to fish like old-timers.

Zach Nehus, who was welding a new steam pipe on his vessel yesterday in a small-boat harbor in Dutch Harbor on Unalaska Island, wasn't nearly as disappointed about the possible cancellation as his father, whose boat The Nirvana was anchored not 20 feet away.

"He'd been out fishing Tanner crab since the early 1970s, and it's what he knows and was really good at," Nehus said. "He was pretty excited about getting back out and doing it again."

Said Dickerson, "We're sort of like the last of the cowboys — or like prospectors. It's one of the last remaining occupations where you still make your living on wits.

"And it's precarious enough without having to worry about something like this."

Seattle Times staff reporter Hal Bernton contributed to this report.

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