Rat-Infested, Squid-filled Pirate Boat Sitting Off Alaska
The Seattle-based U.S. Coast Guard cutter Midgett, on a September Bering Sea fishing patrol, got the call for an abrupt change of course. For a days-long voyage, it cruised to the southwest to intercept a rusting, rat-infested vessel — suspected of illegal drift-net fishing — that had been boarded in international waters.
The vessel — the Bangun Perkasa — with 22 Chinese and Indonesian crew members — was not registered with any nation. So, it had been seized.
The Midgett's job was to escort the vessel back to the edge of Alaska's coastal waters in a marathon cruise that began Sept. 19 and ended earlier this week. To prevent evidence from being destroyed, some of the Midgett crew took turns standing watch and sleeping, aboard the Bangun Perkasa.
"These were pretty deplorable conditions," said Capt. Craig Lloyd, chief of response for the Coast Guard's 17th District. "In some cases, they were waking up, and there were rats crawling about."
The seizure of the Bangun Perkasa put a spotlight on international efforts to crack down on illegal high-seas drift-net fishing, which can ensnare birds, marine mammals, turtles and many other sea creatures as well as the targeted species and has been outlawed by a United Nations convention.
Each year, the U.S. Coast Guard joins with other nations to search remote sections of the international waters of the Pacific for illegal drift-net vessels. This year, a Fisheries Agency of Japan spotter plane initially reported the sighting of the Bangun Perkasa to the Kodiak-based U.S. Coast Guard cutter Munro, which then conducted the initial boarding.
Typically, the illegal fishing vessels are turned over to law-enforcement authorities in the nation where they are homeported. But the Coast Guard determined that the Bangun Perkasa had no legal registration, so the vessel — along with its 10 miles of drift nets and 30-ton catch of squid — was seized.
As the Bangun Perkasa approached Alaska, the Coast Guard reached out to more than 20 federal, state and other agencies to develop a plan to handle the vessel, which under Alaska state law cannot legally enter coastal waters with rats on board.
Rats are an invasive species in the Aleutian Islands that can prey on birds and other wildlife. Though the port of Dutch Harbor already battles Norwegian rats, there are concerns that the vessel could harbor other species of rats or rodents that would intensify the problem — or rats that are resistant to rodenticides and could breed with the local population, according to Steve Ebbert, a biologist with the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge.
Earlier this week, U.S. Sen. Mark Begich, D-Alaska, suggested the vessel be used for gunnery practice, and sunk.
"It would send an unambiguous signal that pirate fishing is unacceptable," Begich said in a written statement. " It will prevent this rust bucket from ending up back on the market where it most likely would fall into the hands of some other pirate."
But at least for now, that's not the plan.
Instead, the Coast Guard, working with partner agencies, awarded a contract to Magone Marine Service in Dutch Harbor to rid the vessel of rats while it remains moored in offshore waters and to make all necessary repairs. Dan Magone, the owner of the business, is a savvy veteran of all sorts of Aleutian Islands mishaps that require salvage, cleanups and other tasks.
"They don't call us unless its strange, that's a prerequisite," Magone said in a phone interview on Wednesday.
But Magone says he's up to the task of killing the rats, and that the most challenging part of the job has been working through the bureaucracy of agencies.
Once the rats are gone, the Bangun Perkasa, will be turned over to NOAA Fishery agents. They will inspect the vessel and decide what to do with it, and also inspect the 30-ton catch, and decide whether it can be sold.
If a sale is approved, the squid, which has been kept refrigerated, won't be marketed for human consumption, according to Julie Speegle, a NOAA Fisheries spokeswoman in Alaska.
The crew is already in Anchorage, and will be sent back to their home countries, according to Jeff Lisius, of U.S. Customs and Border Protection.
Source = Associated Press
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