The State of Spill Response: On-Scene Perspectives

In March 2019, the 58-foot commercial fishing vessel Freyja (pictured) was grounded in Unalaska, Alaska. Resolve Marine was contracted to remove the wreck from the beaches including clearing lose debris along the beach as well as underwater work. Image: Resolve Marine.

Founding Father Thomas Jefferson is credited with saying, “The price of freedom is eternal vigilance.” The same could be said of maritime oil, fuel and pollutant spill response.

From the historic tragedies of the Exxon Valdez and Deepwater Horizon spills to the common hydraulic leak in the local marina, sailors both amateur and professional charge into action to stop the toxic spread.

Whether these responders command a fleet of skimmer vessels or use a fistful of absorbent wipes, the spirit of stewardship for commercial fishing livelihoods and the environment exists in us all.

Fortunately, spill response has come a long way over the decades and now is a professional field with seasoned experts. Herein are a few of their perspectives on the state of West Coast and Pacific spill response from Arctic Alaska to Southern California.

Resolve Marine: Tested Strategies, New Fuels and Arctic Factors, Fishermen Opportunities

Resolve Marine is a global company with offices in Alaska and Washington state that specializes in vessel salvage, emergency response, compliance and specialized marine services.

Alaska-based General Manager of Compliance Services Todd Duke, who’s been with the company 25 years, is a U.S. Navy veteran with extensive marine and structural firefighting experience.

Among Duke’s accomplishments with Resolve are responding to Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010, and establishing spill-response capabilities in Shanghai, China.

Resolve Marine helped extinguish a fire aboard the fish processing vessel Aleutian Falcon at a dock in Tacoma, Wash. in January, 2023. The vessel had 9,800 lbs. of liquid ammonia, 200 lbs. of chlorine and 48,500 gallons of diesel fuel onboard. Photo: Resolve Marine.

“We’re pretty effective and we’re still only cleaning up, you know, maybe 25% of what gets spilt, but that’s just kind of the nature of the game,” Duke said.

On a macro level, Duke said that oil-spill response is “very mature” in that the effective fundamentals and best practices are established. Specialized boom deployments and state of the art skimmers are the standard for the foreseeable future, he said.

In Alaska, Resolve Marine maintains what it calls a ‘first aid package’ that’s always ready to fly in an airplane hangar.

“We can fly just about anywhere in Alaska,” Duke said. The package includes small pumps that responders on scene can operate. Hopefully, Duke added, the pumps can hold the line until the heavy-duty skimmers arrive.

“The skimmers pick up either different types of oils or oils that are in different states,” Duke explained. “The older (the oil) gets, the more weather it gets, the heavier it gets … so we have lots of different types of skimmers and your traditional stuff.”

Keeping oil on a leaking ship is a key preventative measure in a response effort. An example of this strategy was the 2019 wreck of the bulk tanker Solomon Trader in the Solomon Islands—that nation’s worst oil spill to date.

“We want to utilize our skills and our talents and our equipment to keep the oil inside the ship as best we can,” Duke said.

This practice is called “source control,” after which the contained oil can be offloaded in an orderly manner when the proper assets arrive.

The Solomon Trader was wrecked upon a reef and the fuel tanks were pushed upward into the engine room that in turn was full of leaked oil. Fuel leaked from the flooded engine room into the ocean on every low tide.

As per the source control strategy, Duke and the response team opted to pump the spilt fuel from the engine room into the number one cargo hold until the offloading could begin. The improvised plan worked.

For Duke and Resolve Marine, every response is a different puzzle to solve.

A new development in the maritime industry is the response to spills of newer, IMO 2020 compliant fuels.

“They (the new fuels) kind of turn into a grease (when spilt) and so traditional skimmers are not very effective on it,” Duke explained, adding that further research and development is needed to respond to this fuel.

“Knock on wood, thankfully we haven’t had any (new IMO 2020 compliant fuel) spills in this country … most of the experience has been over on the European side of the Arctic. We’re looking at some of the new technologies in order to clean up these types of fuels …”

Oil spills in the colder waters of northern latitudes always have been more challenging, because not only does the oil not degrade as readily, but access to the spill zone is often remote and even isolated by snow or ice.

Duke said that an ongoing oil spill in a northern Alaska village has been a greater challenge than it should be due to their inability to melt snow for site access. If the same incident happened near infrastructure like Anchorage, he said, it’d be taken care of in two or three days. These factors are worth considering with increasing maritime activity in the Arctic.

The U.S. government in 2023 founded a new center called the Great Lakes Oil Spill Center of Expertise to tackle these kinds of challenges.

As far as how commercial fishermen come into play, Duke said the basics of good maintenance and vigilance go a long way. The more typical spills of busy Alaskan fishermen are not trivial.

“They (small local spills) really do have a negative impact on the environment. So, you know, just good maintenance, good inspection and maintenance practices, onboarding fuels and such,” he remarked.

For commercial fishermen who want to take more proactive roles in the ongoing oil-spill response network, Duke helps train and coordinate a Vessel of Opportunity program. It is made up of volunteer local groups of trained commercial fishing vessels and crew who can be called upon for a large oil-spill response.

“There’s lots of needs for different types of vessels and so we’re always looking to enroll people,” Duke said.

Anyone interested in joining or learning more information can email Duke at

An image from a Global Diving & Salvage project in 2018 to remove a flotilla of derelict commercial vessels, debris and dock structures from an Oregon state-owned leasehold on the Columbia River. Image: Global Diving.

Global Diving & Salvage: Boom Rules, Fuzzy Discs, and Current Busters

Aaron Harrington, director of casualty response and Pacific Northwest business manager for Global Diving & Salvage, started working for the company as an environmental technician about 25 years ago. His diverse career with the company includes commercial diving and moving into the environmental arm of the company.

Harrington said that Washington state has avoided major oil spills in recent years. He attributes that in part to the longstanding mandate to deploy booms around vessels of a certain size and flow rate that are loading fuel. If vessel operators are transferring over 500 gallons a minute, a boom encircling the vessel is mandated.

“I would say that the fishing fleet has always been ahead of the curve,” Harrington remarked. “Even before the regulation.”

A crucial piece of equipment in Harrington’s arsenal are “fuzzy discs,” skimmers that utilize rotating discs covered with a fuzzy oleophilic material.

“Basically oil adheres to it on the water if it’s floating,” Harrington said.

According to him, the fuzzy discs of today pick up around 90% of the floating oil when deployed properly.

Another piece of modern equipment worth noting is the current buster, even though Harrington doesn’t command one. These towable boomed setups are for large-scale water recovery projects that contain and decant massive volumes. One limiting factor is that the apparatus must be towed at about one knot to be effective.

Drones have emerged as a key tool for cleaning up oil spills, according to Harrington.

“With the drone technology, they (responders) would be able to go out there and actually see where’s the spill, GPS position and know where to send your assets.”

Perhaps even more important than specific technologies is the competency of the spill response network. Like much of the industry, the real-deal professionals are starting to get closer to retirement age.

“All those larger spill events are driven through the Incident Command System, so having folks that are well versed in that is important,” he said.

Pacific Maritime Group: CARB Regulations Gut Check, Network Cohesiveness, Drones

In the last year, the West Coast “has been fortunate,” Stephen Frailey, the San Diego-based handler of government/military affairs for spill responder Pacific Maritime Group.  “We haven’t seen any real disasters that need responding to … maybe minor stuff here and there.”

According to Frailey, who has worked in the maritime industry in some capacity since he left high school in 1981, Pacific Maritime Group is a team player that’s part of the broader network when it comes to West Coast oil response.

“We have equipment staged so when something happens in the region, we’re called upon usually as part of the team as a subcontractor,” he explained. “We all know each other and we’re all connected in one way or another to all jump into action and help out.”

PMG’s fleet includes small crew boats and large floating cranes that are capable of deep-water mooring. They are, according to the company, well suited to establishing at-sea bases of operations for responders.

“We’re in business 24 hours a day,” Frailey said. “We are very mindful of ever-changing Coast Guard regulations and how vessels are classed, inspected and certified.”

He believes that state spill response vessels have an indirect edge thanks to the state’s strict California Air Resources Board (CARB) regulations. To comply with new emissions regulations, maritime companies were forced to upgrade their engines as part of a widespread re-power effort to be CARB compliant. In a way, all oil-spill response vessels got a gut check.

“Because of the engine re-powers, everything else gets attention also,” Frailey explained.

Like many industry players, oil-spill response is contract work when needed versus the main thrust of PMG’s operations.

“We don’t do all that just to be ready for a spill, we do it so that we are able to respond to our customers’ needs that are on a day-to-day basis,” he said. “In our case, our biggest customers are the United States military and customers like the Army Corps of Engineers for dredging different ports.”

As far as new technology or best practices are concerned, old school tactics such as boom deployment are still mainstays. But innovation is eternal and partnering with organizations are part of that effort.

“I’m talking to someone right now about being a test partner with a local university and a local government agency for experimental spill products,” Frailey said. “So we’re happy to do that.” 

Aerial, surface and submersible drones also have become useful tools in oil-spill monitoring.

“We do a lot of drone research,” Frailey said. “A lot of our vessels are good platforms to go offshore and test that technology. So we work with some of the scientists. That’s a good match-up because you’ve got to have a ride to get out there to do the work and the testing.” 

At the end of the day, word of mouth and having working relationships with all stakeholders is crucial. Frailey and oil-spill response professionals like him are constantly communicating their capabilities to an array of public and private parties that strive to prevent and stops spills effectively. The human element goes a long way.

“I don’t think there’s anything more honest than word of mouth,” Frailey said, invoking the “we’re all [six] degrees removed from Kevin Bacon” rule of association.

“We’re even closer than that,” he said. “All of us in the industry are probably one or two calls away.”    

Norris Comer is a Seattle-based writer and author. His debut memoir, Salmon in the Seine: Alaskan Memories of Life, Death, & Everything In-Between is now available wherever books are sold. You can find him on Substack, Instagram and at He can be reached via email at