The Seward Phoenix Log - News of the Eastern Kenai Peninsula since 1966

By Fern Greenbank
LOG Editor 

Chinese vessel sparks port, dock policy review


Leon Youngblood | The Seward Phoenix LOG

The M/V Shandog Hai Wang, a Chinese vessel on its maiden voyage, was inspected and found not to be using rat guards, prompting a re-visit of rat policy in Alaska.

The issue of rat infestation and the potential damage to wildlife, human health and the Alaska economy has been raised after Coast Guard officials were alerted by some concerned resident to a Chinese vessel docked in the Seward harbor without rat guards on its mooring lines.

While conducting a routine inspection last Friday, Coast Guard officials found that the M/V Shandog Hai Wang, on its maiden voyage docked in Seward to pick up coal from Aurora Energy Services, had not installed rat guards.

Coast Guard Chief Petty Officer Shawn Eggert said concerned citizens contacted the Coast Guard in Anchorage to report the absence of rat guards on the Chinese vessel in the Seward port. Since inspectors were en route to the vessel for routine observation, the inspectors asked the ship's crew if its had rat guards, said Eggert.

"The ship's crew informed the inspectors that their shipping agent told them rat guards were not required to dock in Seward," said Eggert. "The inspectors asked if the crew had guards and were told they did, so they were asked to install them, and the crew did."

Eggert said there is no Coast Guard regulation that requires vessels to have rat guards, but the inspectors are in the process of researching to make sure there is no state or federal law being violated by ships not carrying rat guards.

Coast Guard inspector, Second Class Petty Officer Fay Bailey, said the Coast Guard does not have the manpower to inspect every ship in the Seward harbor, but it does inspect when a ship has not already docked in U.S. waters.

"In this case, the ship was on its maiden voyage and had not been inspected in the U.S.," Bailey said. "We use a matrix to determine when ships have been inspected and where. While we were inspecting the Chinese vessel, we asked the crew if it would install the rat guards because concerns had been raised."

Bailey said there were no deficiencies found on the M/V Shandog Hai Wang. She said it was in "spectacular" condition and the crew was "on point."

"There is no Coast Guard regulation that rat guards must be used by ships docking in the U.S.," said Bailey.

Mike Hanson, general manager for Aurora Energy Services, who coordinated the loading of more than 68,000 metric tons of coal for the Chinese vessel, said there is no regulation regarding rat guard requirements for ships docking in the Seward harbor.

"Here, the Coast Guard is the port authority, so we don't have any authority to tell a ship what to do," said Hanson. "Rat guards are a precaution usually taken if a ship wants to prevent rats from crawling up mooring lines and Seward is not known to have a rat problem. The vessel would have no reason to use rat guards unless there was a known infestation in the docking port or an ordinance, law or regulation."

If there was a rat problem on the ship, said Hanson, the rats would have to jump off the boat into the water and swim to shore because the rats don't travel down mooring lines, only up the lines into the boat.

Hanson does concede that it is possible for a Seward rat to board a Chinese vessel and travel to another port and disembark there. If the Seward rat carried disease to another port, the known damage done by rat infestations could occur.

"Even if we wanted to, we could not mandate a ship use rat guards to protect itself from possible Seward rats," said Hanson. "Only the Coast Guard can do that."

Terry Johnson, a rat infestation specialist with the Alaska Sea Grant Marine Advisory Program is no stranger to this issue. He's been advocating for statewide coordinated efforts, and local ordinances to eradicate invasive rats in waterfront communities.

"I've been making presentations around Alaska since 2007 about the need for rat control on vessels and as far as I know, there is no law or statute requiring a ship to do certain things to control rat populations," said Johnson. "But, there is a state regulation that says, if you knowingly or unknowingly are harboring rats on a ship, the state can step in and make you anchor out and then take measures to eradicate the rat population."

Johnson said trying to enforce preventive measures can get tricky because so many agencies and governmental bodies are involved when it comes to coastal ports.

"It would just be prudent, I would think, for Seward to pass ordinances that makes the process clear," said Johnson. "It's easy to single out a Chinese vessel because the Orient is known to have rat infestations, but it is a good idea for the city to take a stand and create an action plan as recommended by multiple Alaska agencies in the business of wildlife conservation, public health and economic development."

At the very least, Johnson said, it would be good public relations for the coal company, Aurora Energy Services in this case, to require baiting stations, which cost about $100, just to say it was trying to be responsible and proactive.

Seward City Manager, Jim Hunt, said the issue of city ordinances related to rat prevention aboard vessels docked here has never been presented to the council, but he's open to suggestions. Like Johnson, Hunt said an action plan complete with city ordinances gets complicated.

"We would need to consult with the railroad, lawyers, state professionals, government agencies and interested parties to see what the legal options are," Hunt said. "I don't know exactly what the railroad's policy is regarding ship inspections but the railroad leases the property at the dock to Aurora Energy Services which is owned by Usibelli Coal. But, I'll check into it."

At this time, Seward is not known to have a problem with rat infestations or damage from invasive rats, but there is no coordinated effort at the local or state level to routinely inspect ships for hitchhiking rats.

The small board harbor does have an action plan in place, however, said Harbormaster Mack Funk.

"We have materials that we give to commercial fisherman, barges and tugs," said Funk. "We do have the authority to inspect a boat if we think or know there is a rat problem. I've worked for more than 30 years in Washington state and Alaska and we do not have a problem here. Transport vessels dock at the railroad so my office has no authority over them."

Because the issue has been raised this week, however, Funk said he is in the process of researching the issue to become better informed. But, he said, there are no state or federal regulations that relate to the small boat harbor and the use of rat guards.

In October 2007, Ellen Fritts with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, Division of Wildlife Conservation, proposed a comprehensive plan to address what she called "Wildlife and People at Risk: A plan to keep rats out of Alaska."

"Rats are bad news," she wrote. "They are destructive and dangerous in the wild."

Rats have wreaked havoc on human societies, caused economic damage in the billions. The arrival and spread of rats in Alaska, she said, is causing a threat to health, safety, wildlife, habitat and economy. The cost of doing nothing is a reduction or loss of wildlife populations that are critical to wildlife viewing, tourism and support operations. The diseases they can carry are well documented. It doesn't take long for rats to decimate wildlife species, particularly birds.

In recent years, rat prevention moved down the priority list for government agencies, in part because there have been few reported major infestations in Alaska with the exception of the Selendang Ayu shipwreck near Unalaska Island several years ago.

Again, fortunately, Seward has not made the list of the identified hot spots, and this has caused the issue to move lower on the priority list. But, non-idigenous Norway rats are an enormous problem in the Pribilof islands and authorities speculate that increased shipping commerce is likely to create a spread of rat problems on seagoing vessels.

Effective Sept. 13, 2007, "it is unlawful for the owner or operator of a vessel, vehicle, aircraft or structure being translocated, or other means of conveyance to knowlingly or unknowingly harbor live Muridae rodents, or to enter Alaska waters while knowingly or unknowingly harboring live Muridae rodents.

This law, AAC 92.141, also states that a harbor, port, airport or food processing facility in which live Muridae rodents have been found shall develop and implement an ongoing rodent response eradication or control plan.

Because no Seward docked vessel has been found to violate the above noted illegal activity, no response plan has been developed.

Troopers from the Division of Alaska Wildlife Troopers do have the authority and responsibility to enforce the state wildlife statues and regulations. A citation can be issued for a violation of the laws. For individuals, a violation is a Class A misdemeanor can carry a possible maximum fine of up to $10,000 and up to one year in jail. For organizations, a violation is a Class A misdemeanor upon conviction carry a heavy fine up to $200,000.

Another regulation through the Alaska Department of Health and Human Services can take action to control rodents. That department can, alone or in concert with federal and other state agencies, investigate the circumstances and degree of the threat level.

At local levels, some regional and municipal groups have passed ordinances. For example, the Pribilof Islands have taken a "Rat Free Harbor" position by passing St. Paul rodent ordinances to keep new rats from entering at the dosks and airports, according reports by Fitts.

These Norway rats are known for being great swimmers, sometimes up to two kilometers a day and can stay afloat for up to two hours in the water.

There are best practices and examples for Seward city officials to model. Johnson, Fitts and environmental -focused groups say they would like to see Seward undertake similar efforts at creating a rat-free port zone which requires a lot of outreach and education to all stakeholders.

Seward resident Robin Collman, who has spent a lot of time researching and learning about wildlife and conservation issues over the years, said he's pleased that Johnson, from the Alaska Sea Grant Marine Advisory Program has agreed to present his research to Seward residents and officials if asked.

"I think it's worth a look at the ways other Alaskan waterfront communities have created their own plans that address their specific ports," said Collman. "I think an action plan would make sense as Seward's ports and harbors are growing."

The Chinese vessel M/V Shandog Hai Wang has completed the loading of coal from Aurora Energy Services, owned by Usibelli Coal, left power Tuesday.


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