Homer Alaska - News

Story last updated at 7:31 PM on Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Sink or skim: Fishermen unite for marine first-responder training

By Lindsay Johnson
Staff Writer


Photographer: Lindsay Johnson, Homer News

Longliners, seiners, gillnetters, tenders and even charter boats worked Kachemak Bay together last weekend. Fifty-three local boats and 160 people trained for near-shore oil containment and recovery with Alyeska Pipeline Service Company's Ship Escort Response Vessel System (SERVS). SERVS brought another 30 people, a 210-foot vessel, four mini barges as well as booms, skimmers and pumps.

The "vessel of opportunity program," formerly known as the "fishing vessel program," contracts 350-500 Alaska vessels annually to be ready to respond in the event of a spill at sea.

"In the event of a real spill, this is how we would operate," said SERVS operations supervisor, Dave Lawrence.

Tier one vessels of opportunity are located in Prince William Sound, and must be able to respond within 24 hours. Those 60 boats train four times per year in Cordova, Valdez or Whittier.

Participants trained in 11 aspects of spill response to hypothetical 800-900,000 barrel spill. The 1990 Oil Pollution Act requires oil companies maintain the capability to recover 300,000 barrels of crude in 72 hours.

Homer, Kodiak and Seward vessels are part of SERVS' tier two program and train once per year.

Tim Moore, a Prince William Sound seine fisherman, has been involved in the program since the early 1990s. Moore serves as the fishing vessel owner representative for the Homer fleet, and said fishermen and Alyeska representatives were pleased with how the drills went.

"I feel like we have a pretty good handle on the equipment." Moore said. "We've got a real professional fleet that has been trained for going on 20 years now. I think it's a world-class operation."

A fishing vessel administrator, who dispatches the vessels of opportunity, is stationed in every port. A vessel coordinator, based in Valdez, oversees the program and would call administrators in the event of a spill.

Walter Bovich, a gilnetter, is one of the few response team rookies in the fleet, but said he felt confident about the quality and competency of the training and operators.

"You can't anticipate what's going to happen. You can just be prepared for the worst case scenario," Bovich said. "I feel very confident that there will be a substantial response. It's a very, very serious organization."

From the Alyeska's perspective, the partnership with fishermen is good for everyone.

"We depend on their local knowledge they get to protect their resources," Lawrence said.

Lawrence said a tanker had not spilled in more than 3 years, though the response system is tested more frequently.

"Mostly what we've been responding to for the last 12 years is fishing vessels that go aground and leak a bunch of diesel," he said.

"It's not our primary mission but the Coast Guard will come in and ask us to help out because we have all the resources."

A smaller fleet of local vessels will start training at the end of April for CISPRI, the Cook Inlet Spill Prevention and Response Inc.

Lindsay Johnson may be reached at lindsay.johnson@homernews.com.