In Unalaska, the F/V Akutan is everyone’s problem… but nobody’s responsibility

The F/V Akutan is still moored in Unalaska’s Captains Bay. (Berett Wilber/KUCB)

The Coast Guard is working to remove fuel and other hazardous materials from an abandoned fishing vessel in Unalaska’s Captains Bay.

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The F/V Akutan arrived in August after a disastrous fishing season in Bristol Bay. Since then, more than half a dozen state and federal agencies have been monitoring the vessel, but to the frustration of city leaders, none are willing or able to remove it from the bay.

Fall in the Aleutians means strong winds – so strong they can cause a ship to drag anchor. That’s exactly what happened on Oct. 5, when Unalaska Ports Director Peggy McLaughlin received a call that the fishing vessel Akutan was headed towards the beach.

“It was roughly 200 yards off the beach,” McLaughlin said. “We were able to work with Dunlap Towing, and they went out and got a line on it, kept it off the beach and kept it from potentially breaching its hull.”

That prompted the Coast Guard to take another look at the abandoned vessel. Officials determined the vessel was in imminent danger of polluting the bay.

So, the Coast Guard hired a salvage company to remove the remaining fuel and other hazardous substances from the Akutan. So far, the company Resolve Magone Marine has offloaded 14,000 gallons of fuel, Coast Guard Lt. Abbie Lyons said.

“When it’s not raining sideways and blowing 75 knots outside, they’ve been working on the Akutan to remove all the fuel,” Lyons said.

With unpredictable weather, Lyons said she doesn’t know when the cleanup will be completed. But she estimates there are at most 20,000 gallons left on the vessel.

“As a result of going on board and going into some of the tanks, they’re finding that there is fuel and oily waste in places that it wouldn’t normally be or shouldn’t be held,” Lyons said.

The Coast Guard has spent almost $2 million on the clean up to date. McLaughlin, Unalaska’s Ports Director, is glad to see the fuel removal taking place, but said it doesn’t solve the problem of having a large ship abandoned in a busy, ecologically important bay as winter sets in.

Removing the heavy fuel will cause the Akutan to sit higher in the water, making it more susceptible to strong winds. Even with additional efforts to secure the boat, McLaughlin is concerned the ship may run aground or sink.

“Captains Bay in the wintertime can be absolutely crazy with wind,” McLaughlin said. “We’ve seen it time and time again where anchorages don’t hold.”

Ultimately, McLaughlin would like to see the boat out of Unalaska waters. But there’s no indication the Akutan will be moving any time soon.

After the Akutan’s owners abandoned the vessel, the city was hopeful a state or federal agency would step in to remove it. But McLaughlin has found that unless there is immediate danger, like an environmental threat, there’s not much that any party will do.

“There’s at least half-a-dozen-plus agencies involved with the Akutan,” McLaughlin said. “Yet not one of those agencies has an opportunity or a mechanism to enact any kind of jurisdiction over dealing with the vessel itself. The Coast Guard can come in and remove some of the contaminants, but the vessel remains where it’s at.”

McLaughlin and community members were under the impression that once the crew abandoned ship, the Alaska Department of Natural Resources (DNR) would declare the Akutan a derelict vessel and gain jurisdiction to take steps to move the ship before it sinks or runs aground. But DNR’s Clark Cox said that’s not the state’s responsibility. Even if it was, he said, they don’t have the money.

“Our staffing and funding resources are quite limited and we certainly don’t have them for a large vessel in a remote location like this,” Cox said. “We’re often left just as incapable of dealing with these issues as local municipalities and state agencies.”

While DNR often takes the lead because they own state tidelands and are responsible for waterways, Alaska Statute does not specify who is responsible for taking over derelict vessels.

With no one taking responsibility for the ship, it’s unclear what will happen to the Akutan. The city is adamant that it needs to move. But for the foreseeable future, it will remain anchored, ghost-like, in Captains Bay.

Zoe Sobel is a reporter with Alaska's Energy Desk based in Unalaska. As a high schooler in Portland, Maine, Zoë Sobel got her first taste of public radio at NPR’s easternmost station. From there, she moved to Boston where she studied at Wellesley College and worked at WBUR, covering sports for Only A Game and the trial of convicted Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev.

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