Sunken fishing boat is leaking fuel, endangering marine life

COUPEVILLE Wash. -- A sunken fishing boat is leaking fuel and potentially endangering marine life off Whidbey Island, and the owner of the derelict boat could soon be facing criminal charges.

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.

The Deep Sea, which was illegally anchored in the cove for months, is now leaking two gallons of diesel fuel every minute. Clean-up crews have already recovered upwards of 600 gallons of fuel, and they're now working to minimize the damage and make the boat's owner pay for the whole mess.

Ian Jefferds owns Penn Cove Shellfish, a multi-million dollar shellfish farm. He's been on edge since the fire, waiting to find out if the leaking diesel fuel will contaminate his mussel pens.

"We're a pretty large employer here," Jefferds said. "Everybody makes a family living wage. These are year-round jobs."

The sunken boat has already cost Jefferds $50,000 in sales, and some of the local restaurants that serve the renowned mussels are running short.

"If we get shut down some of those people aren't able to go to work," Jefferds said.

The Department of Natural Resources is dealing with 220 reported derelict vessels throughout the state, and it has already spent nearly $400,000 to clean some of them up.

"Many of them have sunk," said Richard Walker of the Washington Department of Ecology. "Others have been very expensive to take care of, and the taxpayers end up paying for these derelict vessels."

The Department of Natural Resources has been trying since the end of last year to force the Deep Sea's owner, Rory Westmoreland, to move his ship out of Penn Cove.

On Monday, Westmoreland said he's broke and can't do much about the ship now.

That explanation doesn't sit well with Jefferds.

"I'm frustrated with the owner for not taking steps to move it when he was asked to," he said.

The state is considering charging Westmoreland with two misdemeanors for leaving a derelict boat and for trespassing. He could also face federal pollution charges.

State ecology scientists should have their environmental damage report finished in the next several weeks.