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caption: A Coast Guard member watches the Aleutian Isle being lifted onto a barge off San Juan Island on Sept. 21. 
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A Coast Guard member watches the Aleutian Isle being lifted onto a barge off San Juan Island on Sept. 21.
Credit: U.S. Coast Guard

Fishing boat lifted out of orca waters after 5 weeks on sea floor

A salvage team successfully lifted the Aleutian Isle onto a barge Wednesday afternoon, more than five weeks after the fishing boat sank into the depths off San Juan Island.

Coast Guard officials say some diesel spilled from the boat as a crane lifted it out of the water. They reported “light sheening” on the surface of Haro Strait near San Juan Island’s Mitchell Bay.

“Some of that sheen did escape beyond the boomed area, but was too light to be recovered,” a Coast Guard Facebook post states.

The salvage team had to pump out all the seawater from the waterlogged vessel to make it light enough to lift out of the sea without breaking apart.

Now they plan to remove remaining diesel from the boat before transporting it to a shipyard.

The boat sank while fishing for sockeye salmon in critical habit for the Northwest’s endangered orcas. All five crew members escaped onto a small skiff, with no injuries reported. A 2-mile sheen of diesel spread across the surface, and San Juan residents reported a strong smell of diesel for hours.

The cause of the sinking and diesel spill have not been determined. An eyewitness reported watching the Aleutian Isle run aground at the Cap Sante Marina in Anacortes the day before it sank.

Some dents in the hull, as well as a broken-off top section of the mast, were visible once the boat emerged from the waves, but it is unclear whether that damage occurred before or after the boat sank 240 feet beneath the surface.

caption: A salvage team lifts the Aleutian Isle onto a barge on Sept. 21.
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A salvage team lifts the Aleutian Isle onto a barge on Sept. 21.
Credit: U.S. Coast Guard


Coast Guard Petty Officer Valerie Higdon could not provide a cost estimate for the complicated salvage operation but said it has a budget of $6.5 million from the national Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund. That fund, launched shortly after the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill, is supported primarily by a 9 cents per barrel (or 0.2 cents per gallon) tax on oil.

Those responsible for oil spills are liable for damages the spills cause as well as the costs of cleaning them up. A Coast Guard investigation is underway to determine the causes of this incident.

In December 2020, a marine surveyor valued the Aleutian Isle at $710,000 and called the boat built in 1974 “well maintained.”

A Sept. 14 public notice in the Journal of the San Juan Islands identifies Matthew Johnston of Mount Vernon as the boat’s owner/operator and invites people suffering damages from the spill to submit claims to him.

Johnston has not responded to KUOW requests for comment, though a San Juan County emergency official says the Johnston family has been participating in the salvage effort.