Earthquake may have triggered sunken fishing vessel to spill diesel off Kodiak Island, officials say

A blue ship sails in the water with mountains in the background.
Ships deploy a boom in Women’s Bay to contain a 300-foot sheen believed to be from a shipwreck disturbed by last month’s massive earthquake some 260 miles away. (Judy Heller via KMXT)

A shipwreck from decades ago has begun leaking diesel fuel off Kodiak Island. State officials suspect last month’s massive earthquake disturbed the submerged vessel.

“We know that this is a vessel that sank in 1989 in Women’s Bay and it’s been resting there since,” Jade Gamble, the state’s on-scene spill coordinator, told CoastAlaska on Friday. “It started leaking after the earthquake.”

She says it’s not clear how much diesel and other contaminants are on the former fishing vessel Saint Patrick.

“They’ve been able to minimize the leak,” she said. “Our main goal is to ensure we don’t have some type of catastrophic release.”

[Sign up for Alaska Public Media’s daily newsletter to get our top stories delivered to your inbox.]

The former scallop boat was hit by a rogue wave during a stormy November night in 1981 near Marmot Island. The captain ordered the crew to abandon ship. Only two of its 12 crew members survived the frigid waters.

The crippled 138-foot vessel was adrift in rocky seas for several days before being towed to shore and anchored in Women’s Bay. The tragedy was the subject of lawsuits filed by survivors and families of the victims.

Authorities say they got the first reports of a sheen less than a week after the earthquake.

The Coast Guard flew over Aug. 6 and confirmed what appeared to be a spill in about 30 feet of water.

But whether the 8.2 earthquake — the state’s largest in more than a half-century — could have been the cause isn’t clear, according to seismologists who have modeled the areas affected by the earthquake.

A map shows Kodiak Island and a purple line goes around it.
Federal authorities say the sheen’s source appears to be the 138-foot F/V Saint Patrick, a scallop boat that sunk in 1989, The sheen is a narrow band that’s roughly estimated as 300-feet long. (NOAA)

The earthquake’s epicenter was about 260 miles southwest of the Saint Patrick’s resting place in Kodiak’s Women’s Bay.

“Kodiak didn’t experience anything significant” Alaska Earthquake Center seismologist Natalia Ruppert told Coast Alaska. “And this shipwreck being even farther away from the earthquake source, I guess it’s possible.”

RELATED: Why a major Alaska earthquake triggered warnings but no major damage

Kodiak Island has also experienced major earthquakes that were much closer to Women’s Bay which would’ve produced stronger ground shaking, she said.

“I don’t know if this most recent 8.2 earthquake was the final straw that could have caused this shipwreck to move significantly,” she said. “Maybe it was a cumulative effect of these multiple earthquakes that over the years kind of reached a critical stage — it’s just hard to tell.”

A contractor is on scene helping with the containment, the Coast Guard said.

“Boom is in place and is being replaced as necessary along with absorbents to contain the sheening,” according to Coast Guard Petty Officer Ali Blackburn, a Kodiak-based spokeswoman.

The Coast Guard says it’s not clear who the responsible party would be since the vessel doesn’t appear to have an owner. It has activated the Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund and continues to monitor the situation.

Previous articleState of Art: Anchorage musician Bethlehem Shalom does things her way
Next articleAlaska News Nightly: Friday, August 13, 2021
Jacob Resneck is CoastAlaska's regional news director in Juneau.