Canadian fishermen claim rights to Japanese ship

MARK THIESSEN RACHEL D'ORO Associated Press Published:

OVER THE GULF OF ALASKA (AP) -- A Canadian fishing vessel on Thursday claimed salvage rights to the Japanese ghost ship that was dislodged and set adrift by last year's tsunami, the U.S. Coast Guard said.

Spokesman Paul Webb says the Coast Guard will hold off on its planned sinking of the abandoned 164-foot Ryou-Un Maru until the 62-foot Bernice C arrives.

Webb said if the Canadians are unable to tow the ship, the Coast Guard will sink it as planned.

"It's a strange twist, but that's how things go," Webb said.

The Japanese ship, which has no lights or communications system, has a tank that could carry more than 2,000 gallons of diesel fuel, but officials don't know how much, if any, is aboard.

Either way, the government says the move is safer environmentally than letting the ship continue to drift.

"It's less risky than it would be running into shore or running into (maritime) traffic," Webb said.

The vessel had been destined for scrapping when the Japan earthquake struck, so there is no cargo on board, according to Webb. He said it's likely there is little or no fuel on board because the ship has been traveling high in the water, indicating a light ballast.

Webb said he doesn't know who owns the Ryou-Un Maru, which has been traveling about 1 mile per hour in the past days.

A Coast Guard cutter was at the location of the ghost ship Thursday with plans to fire cannons loaded with high explosive rounds to sink the vessel in calm seas and clear weather. Webb said the cutter would fire the cannons from several hundred feet away. The goal is to punch holes in the Ryou-Un Maru and sink it. A Coast Guard C-130 plane crew will monitor the operation.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency studied the problem and decided it is safer to sink the ship and let the fuel evaporate in the open water.

The Coast Guard will warn other ships to avoid the area, and will observe from an HC-130 Hercules airplane.

The vessel has been adrift from Hokkaido, Japan, since it was launched by the tsunami caused by the magnitude-9.0 earthquake that struck Japan in March 2011. About 5 million tons of debris were swept into the ocean by the tsunami.

The Japan earthquake triggered the world's worst nuclear crisis since the Chernobyl accident in 1986, but Alaska state health and environmental officials have said there's little need to be worried that debris landing on Alaska shores will be contaminated by radiation.

They have been working with federal counterparts to gauge the danger of debris including material affected by a damaged nuclear power plant, to see if Alaska residents, seafood or wild game could be affected.

In January, a half dozen large buoys suspected to be from Japanese oyster farms appeared at the top of Alaska's panhandle and may be among the first debris from the tsunami.

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D'Oro reported from Anchorage, Alaska.