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Cabin-destroying bears lured by rotten salmon from sunken vessel in Southwest Alaska, lawsuit says

Laurel Andrews
The Lone Star capsized in the Igushik River on June 30. Alaska Department of Fish and Game photo

The saga of the troubled vessel Lone Star, which went down earlier this summer in the frigid waters of the Igushik River in Southwest Alaska for three months before it could be recovered, isn't over yet. The sunken 78-foot fishing tender shut down commercial fishing during the lengthy and dangerous salvage operation. Now, those fishermen who saw their fishing season halted have filed a civil lawsuit. They're seeking reimbursement not only for income lost during the closure, but also for damaged setnets and cabins that they allege were destroyed by bears that flocked to shore, where salmon waste was pumped into the sea by the crews salvaging the Lone Star.

The complaint was filed Wednesday in Dillingham. Twenty plaintiffs are named in the civil suit, and Myron Angstman, attorney for the plaintiffs, said in a press release that “many more people” will be likely be involved by the time the lawsuit comes to a close.

The suit contends first that the Lone Star sank due to negligence and recklessness of the crew. It alleges the Lone Star produced an oil spill that contaminated Bristol Bay. And it says the salvage crew employed by Magone Marine Service and Resolve Marine Group (then separate companies) dumped the decaying remains of 35,000 pounds of salmon out of the sunken vessel into the ocean and Igushik River near the site where the ship was raised.

Dumping the salmon “predictably attracted a large number of bears, and that when the bears were done gorging on the salmon waste, they turned their attention to ransacking plaintiffs' set net cabins, causing serious damage to nearly all of them,” the press release said.

The Lone Star capsized early in the morning of June 30, when the changing tide reportedly swung the anchored ship into its anchor chain, which caught on the vessel's transducer and coolant lines, pulling them loose and creating a hole in the boat's hull.

Commercial fishing in the Igushik River was closed for the rest of the season, as the vessel slowly leaked fuel. Crews with Resolve-Magone struggled to extract fuel from the vessel before finally raising the ship from the frigid waters and thick mud of the Igushik River. The operation -- deemed one of the most treacherous of the crews’ careers -- took 15 weeks to complete.

Also onboard the ship was that salmon cargo, which sat decomposing in frigid waters for more than two months, said Steve Russell, environmental program manager with the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation. The salvage crew determined that the vessel -- which was being held firmly in place by the suction of the muddy river bottom -- would not be able to be lifted from the river floor without first disposing of the salmon waste.

By the time the fish was pumped from the ship, it was the consistency of soup, “not anything we would recognize as a fish,” Russell said.

The discharge plan was reviewed by U.S. Fish and Wildlife, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, and the National Marine Fisheries Service, Russell said, and was approved with certain conditions. Among them, the slurry had to be pumped when the tide was heading out to sea, and when no marine mammals or large numbers of waterfowl were in the area.

After the Lone Star was raised, it stayed in the Igushik River for about two weeks before being towed 600 miles south to Dutch Harbor, Russell said. After that, salvage crews did “significant work on the shorelines around the area,” cleaning up any debris left behind after the salvage operation, Russell said, adding that they didn’t find any signs of fish waste.

State wildlife officials confirmed that bear activity along the river increased this autumn, Russell said, but they could find no correlation between the bears roaming the shores and the Lone Star salvage operations.

The suit names the defendants as the vessel owner, Charles Burrece; five unnamed vessel operators; Trident Seafood Corporation, for whom Burrece worked; Magone Marine Services and its owner, Daniel Magone, as well as the Resolve Marine Group, which during the salvage purchased Magone Marine.

In addition to any possible lost income over the summer, plaintiffs are also seeking damages for possible loss of potential future income -- including subsistence foods, cultural activities and damage to real and personal property.

Contact Laurel Andrews at laurel(at)alaskadispatch.com. Follow her on Twitter @Laurel_Andrews