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Originally published May 16, 2012 at 9:11 PM | Page modified May 17, 2012 at 4:27 PM

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Oil from sunken crabber drags Penn Cove mussel farm into limbo

The owners of Penn Cove Shellfish are crossing their fingers that a diesel spill caused when a derelict crab boat caught fire and sank last week won't do any lasting damage to their operations on Whidbey Island.

Seattle Times science reporter

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There's no more oil leaking from a sunken fishing boat in Penn Cove, but it will be at least two weeks before the country's oldest and largest mussel farm is back in business there.

The owners of Penn Cove Shellfish are crossing their fingers that the spill won't do any lasting damage to their operations — but it could hardly have come at a more sensitive time.

The cove on Whidbey Island is swarming with larvae that are the seeds of future harvests — and vulnerable to toxins.

"Almost my entire next year's crop of seed is out there, and I have a little over a million pounds of this year's ... mussels out there," said Ian Jefferds, company co-owner. "Is it a huge exposure? Absolutely it is."

The Washington Department of Health shut down shellfish harvests on Tuesday, after diesel fuel started leaking from the derelict crabber FV Deep Sea, which caught fire and sank over the weekend. Officials don't have a good estimate yet of how much fuel spilled into a bay prized for its water quality.

By Wednesday evening, cleanup crews had recovered about 3,500 gallons, either by pumping out tanks on the sunken vessel or skimming and mopping up the oily sheen on the water surface. Divers who plugged a hole in a fuel tank Tuesday estimated diesel was pouring out at a rate of 60 to 120 gallons an hour.

It's not clear how much fuel remains onboard. Divers were checking each of the boat's tanks, which can collectively hold 30,000 gallons.

The U.S. Coast Guard estimated cleanup costs at $60,000 a day, with a total price tag of $164,000 so far.

"The good news is that the thing has been contained," Coast Guard Petty Officer Nate Bradshaw said Wednesday. "Now we're working on siphoning all the fuel off." Crews also continue to skim and blot up oil.

Meanwhile, Penn Cove Shellfish is in limbo. The company can't sell any product from the area until health officials certify it's safe. The state will work with federal experts to perform the same kinds of analyses that were used on seafood after the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, said Mark Toy, environmental engineer for the Washington Department of Health.

First, they have to wait for any trace of a sheen to disappear, which could take several days. Then they will wait at least another week to give the mussels time to purge contamination naturally.

Inspectors will collect samples and analyze them for harmful levels of petroleum compounds. But because human taste buds are so sensitive, even minuscule amounts of petrochemicals that aren't considered a health threat can give shellfish an oily tang. So trained tasters will nibble on the mussels and render a judgment.

Jefferds is optimistic that the process can be finished within two weeks, and confident that his shellfish will pass the tests.

"We certainly won't be selling it until ... everything is certified A-OK," he said.

The company, which sells about 2 million pounds of mussels a year, has been able to fill orders with mussels from a smaller operation in Quilcene Bay, on Hood Canal. And as soon as Jefferds saw the Deep Sea in flames over the weekend, he hauled up caches of oysters and clams being stored in Penn Cove and moved them to Quilcene Bay.

But the mussels that are the company's trademark aren't as mobile. They grow on ropes suspended from floating rafts. The diesel sheen on the water's surface escaped booms and drifted over some of the shellfish-growing areas, Toy said.

Because they're such voracious feeders, mussels take up environmental contaminants more readily than clams or oysters. But they also purge themselves quickly. Shellfish are also less likely than fish and marine mammals to accumulate toxins in their bodies, Toy said. That's because shellfish are low in fat, where many toxins concentrate.

Jefferds suspects the adult mussels escaped contamination, because they're suspended at least four feet below the water surface. But May is the peak of spawning season, which means the water is teeming with larvae. The shellfish growers hang tens of thousands of lines from their rafts, which the tiny larvae latch onto when they're ready to settle down, forming the seed crop for a new generation.

The larvae generally swim in the top of the water column, Jefferds said. He's hoping the spill will claim only a small percentage of them. "It's just a light sheen, like you'd see in a marina," he said. "It's not like big oil globules."

The Washington Department of Ecology will evaluate the spill's environmental impacts and attempt to get the boat owner to pay for restoration, said agency spokesman Larry Altose.

But Rory Westmoreland, who ran afoul of state regulations when he left the boat anchored in Penn Cove, has said he can't afford to cover even the cost of the cleanup. The Coast Guard is tapping an emergency spill-response fund, and on Wednesday raised the cost ceiling for the operation to $300,000.

Sandi Doughton: 206-464-2491 or sdoughton@seattletimes.com

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