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Fishing ship sinks, spilling massive amount of diesel fuel near endangered orcas in Washington state

Orcas visit the North Puget Sound
Orcas visit the North Puget Sound 02:20

Law enforcement, environmental agencies and a whale advocacy group have joined forces in Washington state, where a massive oil spill continues to pollute waters that are home to an endangered breed of orca as well as other marine species.

The oil spill began on Saturday morning, when a 49-foot fishing vessel sank near the coast of San Juan Island, according to the U.S. Coast Guard. Officials estimate that the vessel was carrying about 2,500 gallons of diesel fuel, plus an additional 100 gallons of hydraulic fluid and lubricant oil, on board. The vessel was still leaking diesel fuel into the water on Sunday evening, the Coast Guard said.

A coordinated response was launched that morning after all crew members aboard the Aleutian Isle were rescued and a sprawling oil sheen was observed floating north in the water near Canada. The sheen reportedly spanned two miles, according to the agency.

Officials say they are focusing on public safety and taking steps to mitigate damage to wildlife as the diesel fuel permeates marine habitats. 

"The safety of the local public and their interests, and preservation of the environment and protected marine species, continue to be the top priorities throughout the response and recovery process," the Coast Guard said in a news release, noting that air monitoring equipment was moved to the San Juan islands over the weekend to track airborne contaminants that could pose risks to the surrounding community.

Along with Coast Guard crews, personnel from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and The Whale Museum's Sound Watch conservation program have been monitoring area waters for marine mammal activity, with a focus on southern resident killer whales, an endangered species that experts believe now has a population of fewer than 100.

Although a few of the whales were reportedly seen near San Juan Island when the fishing vessel sank, none appeared to be in the "immediate proximity" of the spill and seemed to travel in the opposite direction after it happened, the Coast Guard said. 

As of Sunday night, the vessel had sunk more than 100 feet below the water. The Coast Guard said "a plan is being developed to efficiently and safely enact containment and recovery of pollutants" and potentially salvage parts of the ship as well. Diving operations were scheduled to take place on Monday, and more detailed assessments of the wreckage and remaining pollution are expected to follow.

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