Freighter Spill Closes Fisheries in Bering Sea

State regulators have banned commercial fishing in the Bering Sea (search) near the wreckage of a grounded freighter where fuel oil has been seeping since early this month.

The order affects the Makushin Bay and Skan Bay tanner crab fishery, which had been scheduled to open Jan. 15. Also closed will be Pacific cod, black rockfish and fisheries for other groundfish that would have opened Saturday.

The waters closed by the Division of Commercial Fisheries (search) stretch from Spray Cape to Cape Kovrizhka along the western side of Unalaska Island, about 800 miles southwest of Anchorage.

Between the two capes lies the wreckage of the 738-foot Selendang Ayu (search), which has been leaking oil and diesel fuel since it wrecked Dec. 8. More than 210,000 gallons is believed to have leaked so far.

Denby Lloyd, regional supervisor for the Division of Commercial Fisheries, said 10 of 21 test crab pots retrieved Monday showed some sign of oil contamination. The state said that the area will remain closed until environmental monitoring shows the threat of contamination is gone.

The closure is likely to affect 20-30 fishing vessels, according to Henry Mitchell, executive director of the Bering Sea Fisherman's Association.

Mitchell declined to estimate the economic impact on shutting down the fisheries, although he said the eastern Bering Sea is one of the world's most productive habitats for fish and shellfish.

"I'm sure the Department of Fish and Game is acting on the best science and intelligence and made that decision for the protection of the resource," he said. "We're not going to second-guess that decision."

A fishery is an area where the state allows the harvesting of certain marine species during certain seasons. The tanner crab fishery, with a harvest set at about 171,000 pounds this season, was scheduled to last until March.

IMC Shipping, the Singapore-based operator of the freighter, has hired an adjuster to take claims from commercial fishermen who had planned to participate in the fishery, Lloyd said.

On Tuesday, spill responders want to begin taking fuel from the freighter's stern. A salvage team has been preparing to remove more than 80,000 gallons of fuel from two tanks near the engine room.

So far, more than 40,000 pounds of oily waste have been collected in bags along the shore of Unalaska Island, according to officials. Forty-one dead birds and a dead sea otter have been recovered so far. Hundreds of other oil-blackened birds have been spotted.

The Malaysia-flagged Selendang Ayu was traveling to China with a load of soybeans when its crew shut down the main engine for repairs off the Aleutian chain. The crew could not restart the engine, and the vessel drifted for nearly two days before running aground and breaking in two.

Six crew members were lost at sea when a Coast Guard rescue helicopter crashed into the sea shortly before the freighter broke up.