Sunken scallop boat off Kodiak remains pollution hazard decades later

Responders put about 800-feet of boom around a sheen from the sunken ship in Kodiak’s Womens Bay on Aug. 14, 2021. (Photo courtesy of Global Diving and Salvage via Alaska DEC)

Efforts to contain pollution from a scallop boat that sank off Kodiak Island more than 30 years ago have cost more than $3 million in under a month.

The wreckage of the Saint Patrick is a testament to one of Alaska’s deadliest fishing disasters, and it remains an environmental hazard today.

It had sat — nearly forgotten — at the bottom of Womens Bay until Aug. 3, when an alert passerby noticed an oily sheen on the water’s surface.

Divers traced the leaks to several pinholes in the vessel’s hull, where the heads of rivets had corroded away over the past decades, state officials reported this week.

The state’s Spill Prevention and Response Division has been coordinating divers and boom deployment since the oil sheens appeared in early August. Responders say around 10,000 gallons of water mixed with petroleum have been removed.

“We’re making really good progress on removing fuels and this oily water from the vessel so that we can make sure that it doesn’t continue sheening,” Jade Gamble, who has been leading on-scene response, told CoastAlaska on Tuesday. “And we intend to get this vessel as clean as possible so that we don’t have to come back.”

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

Records are spotty on how the derelict Saint Patrick ended up on the seafloor. Officials only know it went down some time in 1989 after being moored nearby for several years.

“I’m not even for sure the date that it actually sunk,” said Gamble.

But the story goes back several years earlier. And for many in Kodiak’s commercial fishing community, the vessel’s pollution has dragged up memories of one of Alaska’s most devastating fishing disasters, which claimed nine lives in 1981.

“It was a mismanaged boat to begin with,” recalled Bill Harrington, a retired commercial scallop fisherman in Kodiak. “You know that it was over 200 tons, so it’s supposed to have a licensed master mate and engineer. And then I know when it sank, the captain took the trip off and put this guy in charge that didn’t have a license.”

Owners paid out to survivors, victims in multi-million dollar suit

Kodiak maritime attorney Jerry Markham represented one of the two survivors and several families of victims. He said just before the tragedy, the Coast Guard had let the 138-foot ship off with a verbal warning over the licensing issue.

But the owners ordered the Saint Patrick to fish for scallops anyway in late November.

“And the mate went out in a very serious storm and got side to the seas, and the boat rolled so far over that it took water into the air intakes and flooded the engine,” he said. “And that’s what caused the crew to panic.”

The fishing vessel Saint Patrick under tow in 1981 shortly after nine of the 11 crew perished after abandoning ship in rough weather. (Photo courtesy of Kodiak Maritime Museum via Alaska DEC)

The batteries had become waterlogged and someone in the crew became convinced they could explode, which was unfounded. But that was the fear among the crew — most of whom had little experience on the water.

“They hired these kids out of Homer,” Markham said. “A couple of them were under 20, as I recall, and they were for shuckers — that’s all their job was, was to shuck scallops. They didn’t know anything about maritime.”

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They were 13 miles offshore when the order was given to abandon ship for a life raft. But it blew out of reach. Three of the crew members didn’t have survival suits, which in the frigid waters, gave them only minutes to live.

“The boys in survival suits, of course, they lasted 10 hours and watched each one of them slowly die until the last two got cast on different parts of the shore because they were separated,” Markham said.

Only two of the 11 crew survived after washing ashore on nearby Marmot Island. The disabled Saint Patrick rolled in the rough seas but never foundered.

“It’s such a tragedy because of the nature of the accident. If the boys had only stayed with the boat,” Marham said of the victims — eight of whom were men, one was a young woman.

The ship was salvaged a few days later and towed back to Womens Bay, where it remained for decades in about 58 feet of water.

As legal battle moved onshore, fishing vessel left to rust

Markham spent the next decade in litigation against the four principal owners of the Saint Patrick’s holding company.

“The court found the corporation was a shell and what we call piercing the corporate veil and held them all responsible for the accident,” he said.

It went to federal appeals twice before the court awarded a final payout of nearly $8 million to the two survivors and the estates of nine crew members lost in 1981. That wasn’t until the late 1980s. And during all that time, the abandoned Saint Patrick sat in Womens Bay.

“I wasn’t really concerned with the vessel,” said Markham. “We were just looking at the situation, collecting something for the people.”

Apparently nobody was. And the 200-odd ton ship rusted on its moorings while legal battles were fought onshore in federal court.

“The salver, I don’t know if he ever got anything out of it,” said Markham. “But for this boat that nobody wanted to touch because it was, quote, a ghost ship.”

Bill Harrington, who fished scallops all through the 1980s, remembers the empty Saint Patrick as a fixture on Womens Bay. It was visible from the road until, one day in 1989, it wasn’t.

“It was kind of a reminder of the disaster that happened,” Harrington said. “You know, any boat isn’t going to stay afloat if no one’s taking care of it. And no one was taking care of that one, either. So that’s probably why it sank.”

Coast Guard, harbor officials say circumstances of 1989 sinking unclear

Kodiak’s harbor officials say there are no records explaining exactly when or why the ship went down.

Multi-beam sonar image of the bow aspect of the sunken vessel F/V Saint Patrick on Aug. 17, 2021. (Photo by eTrac Inc. via Alaska DEC)

Harbormaster Mike Sarnowski says he’s been calling around looking for answers and reading articles online.

“And nobody really has any information,” he said Wednesday. “So it’s a difficult story to find, but we’ll keep on trying to see if we can figure out if somebody here knows what actually caused the sinking.”

Meanwhile, first responders are moving into their second month trying to contain any pollution from the sunken ship. The Coast Guard has tapped into federal clean-up funds with about $3 million in public money spent so far.

Efforts to track down those who could be held liable have been fruitless, said Jade Gamble, the on-scene coordinator.

“Many of the businesses that were involved with this vessel in the ’80s are now out of business. And so there’s not been a responsible party identified as of yet,” she said.

Derelict vessels a problem across coastal Alaska

It’s a familiar type of story.

Abandoned vessels are a challenge across Alaska with state lawmakers in recent years mandating titles to track ownership and using those fees to establish a fund to deal with derelict ships that are a hazard to navigation and the environment.

Jerry Markham, the maritime lawyer, said he thought the Saint Patrick was a tragedy from another era. But he’s still answering questions about it.

“It’s crazy that they’re still having these problems with it,” he said. “But modern times have changed. Like I said, they’re much more concerned about the pollution these days.”

The ghost ship that claimed nine souls still casts a shadow of sorts over the waters of Womens Bay.

Hundreds of feet of boom encircle the area to keep the oily waste from reaching the shoreline. But this wrecked scallop boat that sank more than 30 years ago still isn’t completely at rest.

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Jacob Resneck is CoastAlaska's regional news director in Juneau.

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