Sunken Fishing Vessel Raised Off San Juan Island

Crews work aboard the Aleutian Isle on Sept. 20, 2022. U.S. Coast Guard photo.

A commercial fishing vessel that sank near Washington’s San Juan Island on Aug. 13 with estimated 2,600 gallons of diesel and oil on board was successfully lifted to the surface as part of a lengthy process that ended Sept. 17.

The lifting of the Aleutian Isle began during that weekend afternoon and continued late into the night. The Coast Guard said after the vessel was brought to the surface that the crew began the complicated task of dewatering and removing fuel. The vessel was partially dewatered and approximately 775 gallons of oily-water liquids were removed, but crews were unable to safely access all spaces and completely dewater the vessel.

The fishing vessel was recovered from more than 250 feet of water in Haro Strait after weeks of complex dives. It was later towed to Mitchell Bay to provide divers and response crews a safer, shallower environment to prepare it for the final lift out of the water.

After it was raised, the Aleutian Isle was floating with assistance from the barge DB-24.

The incident commander, Coast Guard Cmdr. Kira Moody, said that the complexity of the operation was a challenge. Lifting the boat was a critical first step to minimize the ongoing pollution risk. Moody said the next step would involve relocating the crane barge to a more sheltered location, so that the boat could be secured with much less risk to divers and crew and protect the environment from lingering pollution risk. 

The Coast Guard explained that continuing to lift the vessel in its current position would jeopardize the safety of crews needing access to the starboard fuel tanks and internal spaces to continue with dewatering and removing fuel to lighten the vessel.

While the crane could lift the vessel at its current weight, the Coast Guard said the existing configuration of the rigging put too much stress on the vessel’s structure and could cause the vessel to break and release any remaining fuel.

Meanwhile, the Coast Guard said pollution mitigation measures had been effective. Responders were able to boom sheening. Estimates to identify how much fuel is being released were still in progress. Wildlife and pollution mitigation tams were successful in deterring birds from sheening areas during lift operations.

The Coast Guard said its teams were continuing to monitor sheening, while locating marine mammals and birds and impacts to the shoreline.

By Sept. 21, the vessel had been recovered, defueled, towed by a salvage barge and no longer posed a significant threat to the environment, according to the U.S. Coast Guard.

As of late September, plans were in place to transit the Aleutian Isle to a mainland facility for further investigation into the cause of the sinking.

Moody, the federal on-scene coordinator representative, said that the unique environment of the San Juan Islands and location of the vessel led to other complications for the response. 

San Juan Office of Emergency Management Director Brendan Cowan was the local on-scene coordinator. 

“This area is special and unique. It has an incredible diversity of marine life,” Cowan said. “The whale deterrence team has spent countless hours monitoring and protecting the Southern Residents and other species from any sheening.”    

Throughout the response, experts were on standby to deter killer whales from areas of active sheening, with extra attention on the endangered Southern Resident killer whales. Deterrents were successful during two separate events with a pair of transient killer whales. 

Birds landing in surface sheening were also a concern, especially the endangered marbled murrelet, Coast Guard officials said. Teams used proactive deterrence with air cannons and vessels to prevent birds from moving through areas of sheen.  

Dave Byers, the state’s on-scene coordinator from the Washington Department of Ecology, said monitoring for any residual fuel that could impact the shoreline or wildlife was continuing.

The Aleutian Isle is an 18-meter long (59 feet) and six-meter wide (19.7 feet) U.S.-flagged vessel. According to the U.S. Coast Guard, all five crewmembers were rescued by a Good Samaritan as the vessel sank.

As of early October, the cause of the boat’s sinking remained under investigation.