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Originally published Sunday, June 3, 2012 at 9:09 PM

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Penn Cove shellfish harvest may resume soon

Now that a derelict fishing boat has been lifted from the bottom of Penn Cove, area residents could resume shellfish farming and harvesting...

Seattle Times staff reporter

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COUPEVILLE, Island County — Now that a derelict fishing boat has been lifted from the bottom of Penn Cove, area residents could resume shellfish farming and harvesting as early as Tuesday, state officials say.

It's a welcome possibility for the small community on Whidbey Island, which is renowned internationally for its mussels.

Although some people remain bitter about what they called slow efforts to seize the Deep Sea before it sank last month, most were simply glad to see it float again Sunday — a sign it will soon be scrapped.

"It's been a nerve-racking, roller-coaster ride over the last three weeks," said Ian Jefferds, co-owner of Penn Cove Shellfish. "Seeing it brought to surface, without all the things that could've gone wrong (such as additional fuel leaks), was such a relief."

Shellfish harvesters such as Jefferds were asked to stop their work as a precaution after the 140-foot Deep Sea caught fire and sank May 13.

More than 5,000 gallons of oil products were removed from the boat or the water's surface during the recovery operation, according to the Department of Ecology.

The joint state and federal effort was hampered, state officials said, because the boat rested on its port side in 25 feet of silt.

The crew had to dig tunnels under the boat, run chains through them and figure out how to set the boat upright before raising it. All, of course, without creating any more pollution.

Jared Davis of the state Department of Health said Sunday morning that toxicity and taste tests could begin as early as Monday to see if area shellfish were contaminated. If not, he said, harvesting could resume by Tuesday morning.

It is peak spawning season for mussels, which makes it a bad time to be out of business.

Jefferds, co-owner of Penn Cove, has said he's lost a lot of money by not being able to harvest from his mussel rafts, which are anchored in rows within 100 yards of where the boat sank.

Although he'll have to wait for the state's official results, he said Sunday that his own taste test Wednesday went well and he doesn't think his crop was contaminated by the spilled fuel.

News that the Deep Sea was being lifted led to an impromptu community event Sunday.

Residents parked nearly 40 vehicles along the grassy shoulder of Madrona Way to watch the recovery operation from bluffs above the beach.

People gathered in groups to chat about the burden Rory Westmoreland — the boat's owner — created for the community.

Some brought lawn chairs, others came with cameras, binoculars or spotting scopes that they readily shared.

Shortly after 1 p.m., the smoke-stained stern rose from the water.

Robin Llewellyn was the first to shout, "It's up!" Others cheered and called family to share the news.

Most of those gathered said safety of the divers working on the recovery must come first. Some were impressed by coordination between the agencies and with local conservation groups.

But many were frustrated by what they considered a slowness to remove the boat before it sank, particularly in the wake of several community complaints late last year.

The boat is private property, "so by law we have to respect that," Commissioner of Public Lands Peter Goldmark said, standing on the Coupeville wharf.

"I wish we had more statutory authority and program dollars for a vessel like that so we could've headed that off."

Goldmark also said the Deep Sea was not on the program's priority list because a Coast Guard inspection deemed it seaworthy. It was largely the unanticipated fire that created the problem, he said.

Although the state has funded the safe removal of smaller derelict vessels — more than 200 of which are on a waiting list — Goldmark said state funding simply is scarce for larger vessels like the Deep Sea.

Jayme Fraser: 206-464-2201 or jfraser@seattletimes.com

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