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Rat infestation leaves rogue ship stranded off Alaska

By Yereth Rosen

ANCHORAGE, Alaska (Reuters) - A rogue fishing vessel caught in the North Pacific four weeks ago was stranded off the coast of Alaska on Monday while authorities prepared to remove the crew and kill a large number of rats on board, a U.S. Coast Guard spokeswoman said.

The 140-foot Bangun Perkasa was found in early September using illegal drift nets to scoop fish from international waters about 2,600 miles southwest of Kodiak, Alaska, authorities say.

A Coast Guard crew that boarded the ship found some 30 shark carcasses, 30 tons of squid and 10 miles of outlawed monofilament drift net, along with the rat infestation.

The Coast Guard cutter crew, alerted by Japanese officials patrolling the area by air, escorted the ship to the Dutch Harbor area, where it arrived on Sunday, U.S. Coast Guard Petty Officer Sara Francis said.

High-seas drift net fishing, considered highly damaging to fish stocks, marine mammals and other sea life, is banned by various international treaties and by U.S. law.

The rats found on board pose another environmental problem: Potential invasion by a nonnative species that could wipe out large numbers of Alaska seabirds and other natural life.

It is unclear how many rats were on board, Francis said.

"We've seen evidence on board that there is a significant population," she said. "On a 140-foot boat, there's got to be a lot of good places to hide."

Once the crew members are taken off the ship for processing by federal customs and border patrol officials, a contractor hired by the Coast Guard and National Marine Fisheries Service will set traps and spread poison on the vessel, she said.

The case is challenging for law-enforcement because the ship is not registered in any country, Francis said.

The crew claimed the ship was registered as Indonesian, but the Indonesian government denied such registration, she said. "At that point they became stateless," she said.

Because Alaska law forbids transport of rats into state territory, all the vermin must be eliminated before the ship can enter state waters within three miles of shore, Francis said, which may take up to a week.

Alaska law since 2007 has forbidden the transport of rats into state territory. State, local and federal policies employ aggressive policies to prevent the spread of rats into the Alaska environment.

Dutch Harbor, a busy fishing and cargo port, is one of the few Alaska sites where invasive rats have established a population. Killing off the Bangun Perkasa's rats will help prevent any new introductions that could strengthen that population, said Steve Ebbert, a wildlife biologist with the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge.

(Editing by Dan Whitcomb and Cynthia Johnston)

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