128-foot fishing vessel burns off Whidbey Island

WHIDBEY ISLAND, Wash. – Mussel harvesting has been suspended until further notice in Whidbey Island’s world-renowned Penn Cove after a 128-foot derelict fishing vessel anchored there burst into flames late Saturday, officials said.

Richard Walker of the state Department of Ecology said the mussel farm operations were suspended as a precaution while investigators make certain that no pollution has reached the mussel pens from the burning vessel. The investigation is being conducted by the state Health Department, he said.

Rawle Jefferds, co-owner of Penn Cove Shellfish, says the potential for damage is substantial. He said the company will not harvest mussels unless it is 100 percent certain that there is absolutely zero contamination.

“We suspended it. We’re not going to harvest out of Penn Cove until we can get things certified,” he said.

The financial impact is already being felt, Jefferds said.

“We’ve got employees that don’t get to go to work, we’ve got no harvest,” he said. “The actual costs, I couldn’t begin to estimate.”

He said the company has carefully built its reputation for a quality product over the years, and now ships shellfish all around the world.

The fishing boat Deep Sea caught fire late Saturday and continued burning all night and next morning, the Coast Guard reported.

Witnesses said a sheen could be seen on the water’s surface near the boat, and it appeared to be floating toward the mussel pens.

Fire boats and a Coast Guard vessel responded to the scene, in Penn Cove off Whidbey Island, at about 11:45 p.m. Saturday after receiving a report from 911 dispatchers that the vessel was completely engulfed in flames.

Crews attempted to put the fire out but stopped when it appeared that water from firefighting efforts had caused the boat to list. Officials say they were worried that more water would cause the boat to sink.

As soon as the firefighting efforts were ceased, the fire flared up again and was still smoldering as of noon Sunday. The boat is considered a total loss.

A Coast Guard vessel remains at the scene to provide a 200-yard safety zone around the vessel.

Walker said the Deep Sea is classified as a non-operational vessel, without an engine or propellers, and no one was aboard at the time of the fire. The boat was towed to Penn Cove last December.

The owner of the vessel has been notified, and an environmental contractor has been hired to clean up and place a double containment boom around the ship.

The contractor will also attempt to board the ship and pump out 50 to 100 gallons of diesel fuel that remains in the fuel tank, Walker said.

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