The Coast Guard announced a new plan Monday that aims to remove the 79-foot fishing boat stranded off Waikiki within 2-1/2 weeks, weather permitting.
Capt. Michael Long, commander of Coast Guard Sector Honolulu, said the plan was formulated with the help of a half-dozen experts from across the nation and is likely to cost the vessel’s owner as much as $1 million.
“I know this has taken a lot longer than any of us wanted, and I’m going to ask for your continued patience as we work with this very difficult process,” Long told the news media at Coast Guard district headquarters Monday morning.
But officials at Waikiki Aquarium continue to be worried about fuel leaks from the boat stuck on the reef just 400 yards offshore.
Fearful of contaminating the exhibits, the aquarium stopped taking water from the ocean and is now using less-than-optimal salt water from a well underneath the property, Waikiki Aquarium Director Andrew Rossiter said Monday afternoon.
“It’s a huge, huge inconvenience,” he said.
Rossiter said state officials have assured him that the results of twice-weekly water testing have come up clean.
“But local folks, swimmers and divers, tell us they’ve seen oil slicks and smell fuel,” he said. “So it’s hard to tell where the truth lies.”
The U.S.-flagged, Honolulu-based Pacific Paradise ran aground on the reef just before midnight Oct. 10, prompting at least a couple of attempts to remove the boat that failed.
Long said the new plan calls for adding buoyancy to the wreck by pumping water out of the holds and patching the hull to make airtight spaces and empty compartments.
Additional floating power will come in the form of artificial foam that will expand inside the vessel, said Todd Duke of Resolve Marine Group, the project’s newest contractor.
“She should slide right out of there,” Duke said.
The vessel will then be towed nearly 15 miles south of Waikiki where it will be sunk, officials said.
Afterward the wreck site will be cleaned and its debris removed, including fishhooks and any other gear left behind. Officials said the longline fishing vessel may have carried 1,000 fishhooks or more, so there could be hundreds still scattered across the site.
Divers will then make an assessment to determine how much environmental damage there is and whether any remediation is necessary.
“There has been damage to the coral,” Long said. “But we won’t know the full impact until the vessel has been removed.”
Officials said what makes this grounding especially challenging is its location. On one side of the vessel is a fishery management area. Nearby is a marine life conservation district.
On shore is the aquarium and popular beaches.
“It’s a very special reef area,” said Brian Neilson of the state Division of Aquatic Resources.
Long said other complicating factors are the fact that the wreck sits in a surf zone, as well as in shallow water, which restricts the use of larger vessels that could otherwise be helpful in this situation.
As for potential fuel leaks, officials said a salvage team removed about 3,000 gallons of fuel from the Pacific Paradise four days after it ran aground, leaving only about 1,500 gallons in the vessel.
On Monday, Long estimated that less than 100 gallons of diesel fuel has leaked.
“What we’ve got going in our favor is that diesel fuel is a very light product,” he said. “It evaporates quickly, and in current weather conditions, with the winds, it’s being carried offshore.”
But Rossiter said he remains concerned the boat could break up, and then it would be only a matter of hours before the nearshore water is contaminated.
He said that out of caution the aquarium will continue to use only the cooler well water even though the attraction’s aquatic creatures look and behave better when they’re in the usual blend of reef and well water.
Rossiter said he was disappointed to hear the disabled boat would be out there until early December.
“It’s 2-1/2 weeks more of worry and inconvenience and potential for leaks that could affect the entire ecosystem,” he said.
Coast guard officials said workers at the site Monday reported no visible sheen.
They said workers this weekend began securing the stranded vessel by installing underwater mooring anchors on the ocean floor to hold a platform base that will be used in the salvage operation.
Officials said they also stepped up security around the vessel to maintain 24-hour enforcement. That follows reports of people sneaking onto the vessel at night last week.
“The vessel is a hazard,” Long said, adding that oceangoers are asked to stay at least 500 yards from the wreckage for their safety.
Long said the boat’s owner, Honolulu-based TWOL LLC, is cooperating and appears to have the insurance to pay for the removal.
If there’s any problem, he said, the Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund, created after the Exxon Valdez disaster in 1989, allows the federal government to cover expenses.