Penn Cove mussel harvest suspended after boat fire, sinking

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 and later sank, officials said.

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

It sank at about 6 p.m. Sunday as the Coast Guard was preparing to inspect it and see if it could be towed out of Penn Cove, which is known around the world for the quality of its mussels and shellfish.

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 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 day, 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 continued to smolder all day Sunday until it finaly sank.

Walker said the Deep Sea was 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.

There was believed to be about 50 to 100 gallons of diesel fuel aboard the vessel at the time of its sinking.