Art Sowls has one of the more unusual job descriptions at Alaska’s Fish and Wildlife office in Homer. His specialty is keeping rats off vessels, whether yachts, fishing vessels, or commercial ships, in an effort to keep the vermin off sensitive-habitat islands on the remote Alaska coast that have had bird populations decimated.
Rats are non-native to Alaskan islands and are believed to have arrived on islands, from the Pribilofs to the Aleutians, by fishing and trading vessels over a period of several centuries. They have reportedly destroyed entire colonies of seabirds and are continuing their devastation, according to Fish and Wildlife officials.
“Rats are no fun to have in any community. But rats are worse – to birds especially – than something like the Valdez incident because rats are forever,” said Sowls, whose job is to educate the public about the importance of keeping vessels clear of rats. “In the 1790s rats came ashore to one of the Pribilof islands from a Japanese sailing ship that was wrecked. They’re still there. In World War II rats got on several of the Aleutian islands and they’re eating through bird populations. We give away prevention kits to ships, yachts and fishing vessels. We are still extremely concerned about shipwrecks.”
Sowls said that rats also wreak havoc on commercial enterprises like airports and communication facilities. Because a rat’s incisor teeth constantly grow over its lifetime, they need to constantly chew to wear them down.
“We had an incident once aboard a Hawaiian Airlines plane that had a rat aboard. They had to literally take the plane apart, piece by piece, because that rat could have damaged anything on the plane,” Sowls said.
Fish and Wildlife officials, who are most concerned about rat-infested fishing vessels that are routinely wrecked on the Alaska coast, recommend that all vessels visiting remote islands, whether off Alaska or any sensitive island, keep their vessels clean and respond swiftly to potential rat problems by trapping and killing rats. A rat found alive on board should not be thrown over alive, they say, since rats are capable of swimming for miles and could end up ashore.