When I was at the International Oil Spill Conference last week in Portland, Ore., I was notified about a potential oil spill in Alaska. We get called all the time by the U.S. Coast Guard when they are concerned that a vessel in distress might turn into a pollution case. This time it was a fishing boat that drifted aground on Hagemeister Island in Togiak Bay (near Bristol Bay) after it lost anchor.
The 102-foot-long Nor’Quest had 16,000 to 18,000 gallons of diesel fuel and approximately 1,000 gallons of miscellaneous lube oils on board, which is where we wanted it to stay.
In these types of incidents, response equipment is staged and spill responders are on standby in case of an oil spill. If it is safe to do so, hoses and pumps are used to transfer fuel off the vessel to a nearby ship. This helps reduce the risk of a spill and lighten the vessel to make it easier to refloat, which is exactly what happened in this case. There was no pollution reported and salvage efforts allowed the ship to refloat early in the morning of May 30, 2011.
We at NOAA helped the Coast Guard with weather forecasts, information on tides and currents, and computer modeling to predict where oil might go if there were a spill. We also looked at what kinds of shoreline habitats and animals might be at risk from any potentially released oil.
Hagemeister Island, part of the Togiak National Wildlife Refuge, is a remote windswept island. It has no human residents, but lots of marine mammals—such as seals, walruses, and whales—as well as birds use the island and nearby waters, and herring and other fish spawn along the shorelines. This time of year is the commercial fishing season for herring and that brings a lot of seasonal vessel traffic, which is probably why the Nor’Quest was there.
Most of the time, people only hear about oil spills when they’re big and in the news—like last year’s in the Gulf of Mexico. But those of us in NOAA’s Emergency Response Division use our scientific expertise every day to help keep oil out of the water and off the shore to protect our country’s rich natural resources.