Scientists concerned about orcas after diesel, oil spill near San Juan Island

A fishing vessel sank off the west side of San Juan Island, which has locals on the island concerned.

As of Sunday, the Southern Resident orcas have been spotted near Port Angeles, giving some relief as scientists have concerns that the oil spill could be hazardous to the endangered species.

According to the U.S. Coast Guard, the vessel that sank has been located on radar. The location is in roughly 100-foot deep waters off the west coast of San Juan Island. The next step will include a dive team that can better determine how to remove the boat while eliminating any further oil leaking. 

Five crewmembers onboard the ship were rescued by a Good Samaritan, but attention has quickly shifted to the endangered Southern Resident killer whales and what the spill could mean for them, as they’ve been traveling near the island throughout the day.

According to the United States Coast Guard, the 49-foot vessel went down with roughly 2,600 gallons of diesel and oil onboard. A visible sheen from a picture posted by USCG has emerged near Sunset Point, at last check the sheen has stretched to 1.75 miles long.

A member of the Coast Guard tells FOX 13 News that the National Oil Spill Liability Trust fund has already authorized $130,000 for spending for the pollution response. That money will go towards contractors that will be needed to minimize impact to sensitive marine mammals in the area.

A team of scientists are on standby in case the orcas return to harass, or haze, any orcas that attempt to get near the spill — it’s a last resort to keep them from an area that’s harmful to them.

The Southern Resident killer whales have been a struggling population for years. They are federally listed as an endangered species along with Chinook salmon, their main food source.

Monika Wieland Shields with Orca Behavior Institute told FOX 13 News that the orcas have no way of detecting the spill, adding that there is a concern about what would happen if they’re exposed to the spill. She and other researchers are paying close attention tonight.

"It’s scary because we know one catastrophic oil spill could spell the end of the Southern Residents," said Wieland Shields. 'We’ve been talking about the threat of oils spills for years – so it’s very concerning and frustrating if we’re not prepared for something like this."

Dr. Deborah Giles, with Wild Orca, told FOX 13 she's preparing with other scientists to take to the water at first light to haze any orcas that attempt to get close to the spill. Essentially, scientists would work together in coordination using specialized tools in an effort to re-direct the orcas away from the hazardous spill.

As of Saturday night, the U.S. Coast Guard remains on-scene. According to marine traffic maps, the Coast Guard patrol boat "Swordfish," is still at the site of the spill. They're coordinating work with a variety of groups including NOAA, Sound Watch, the Canadian Regional Operation Center, San Juan County Office of Emergency Management, Washington State Dept. of Ecology and the Island Oil Spill Association.

"We are working with government and industry partners to ensure an efficient and effective containment and recovery response," said Lt. Cdr. Brian Dykens, Sector Puget Sound Incident Management Division Chief. "The local public, the environment and protected marine species are our top priority."

Get breaking news alerts in the FREE FOX 13 Seattle app. Download for Apple iOS or Android. And sign up for BREAKING NEWS emails delivered straight to your inbox.

While there is still concern, scientists note a crude oil spill would have been more catastrophic — the majority of what spilled on Saturday is diesel fuel.

It's unclear what led to the ship sinking, however, a number of agencies are now working together to minimize the impact.

A spokesperson with the Coast Guard said the ship sank in water at a depth of 100 feet. That means a salvage team will be brought in to safely bring the vessel to the surface, and to dispose of any leftover fuel and oil that remains in the ship.