KODIAK (AP) ''Rats!'' Kodiak Harbor patrol officer Dick Ross said, shining a flashlight into a dark hole of the city small boat harbor.
''They're here to stay.''
Along the waterfront, from cannery row to Oscar's Dock, to the ferry dock and Chamber of Commerce, rats are wriggling through tunnels, nesting in rat holes, eating from dumpsters and multiplying like, well, rats.
Most people are unaware of them, but rats have probably been a part of Kodiak almost as long as sailing ships have been coming to town, Ross said.
As the midnight-shift watchman for six years, Ross knows a thing or two about rats.
Ask about rats and harbor officials refer you to Ross, ''our rat guy,'' they say.
Ross has spotted rats slinking aboard ships in port. He's discovered rat runways underneath the docks. He knows where rats frequent and he's frequently set traps and poison boxes out for rats.
''Nineteen ninety-nine was the worst year,'' Ross said. ''We were infested. You would see six and seven rats, just creeping along the pier at night. They'd try and get into the office. So I'd set out boxes of poison, and in the morning it would be gone.''
If nothing else, rats are insatiable.
Over the past few years, Ross said, upswings in foxes around the harbor caused downturns in rodent populations.
But rats seem to be on the rise again in Kodiak. Lately, Ross said, rats have been turning up in all the old areas, up to all their old tricks.
They say if you see one rat, generally, there are 10 others, Ross said.
Most recently, rats trespassed on a docked ship near the office, and Ross saw one spill out of a Dumpster a few days ago after a garbage truck lifted it off the ground.
What is the problem with rats?
''Rats have been known to cause fires on vessels,'' said Harbor Master Marty Owen, ''they chew apart corks, nets, and insulation and electrical wiring,'' he said.
Unlike Brown bears or sea lions, rats are not exactly a tourist attraction. Though they are generally nocturnal and sneaky pests, rats still make ill-timed appearances.
Rats have stampeded through booths during Crab festival. They have made bold assaults on fish-cleaning tables set up around the Kodiak waterfront, and paraded proudly in front of passengers disembarking cruise ships and the ferry.
Borough Assemblyman Wayne Stevens said he would never forget the time he was at the Chamber of Commerce office, busy with paperwork when ''I had the feeling I was being watched,'' he said.
''I looked up and saw a rat sniffing at the window,'' Stevens said.
Norway rats are responsible for killing thousands of auklets on Kiska Island, endangering the critical seabird population near the tip of the Aleutian Chain, according recent news reports.
Katie Murra, a wildlife biologist who is studying Kodiak seabirds for the University of Alaska Anchorage, said there doesn't appear to be a similar problem on Kodiak, but her research team is setting ''rat boxes'' on nearby islands Chiniak Bay this summer to determine if rodents are present.
Owen said he signed the Kodiak City Harbor up for a Fish and Game program years ago that provides harbors with ''rat kits'' packages containing poison, traps and videos explaining the importance of stopping rats from traveling by fishing vessels to islands along the Aleutians, such as Kiska.
Owen distributes the kits to skippers of larger fishing vessels in port. But no one's fooling themselves into thinking they are going to eradicate Kodiak's rat population.
''I don't know if it's even possible,'' said Ross. ''But if it is, it would require a concerted community-wide effort.''
''You would have to kill every rat along a large section of the shore,'' said Owen, who is hesitant to use so much poison, because it kills other animals and seabirds.
For now, Kodiak waterfront residents appear to have grown warily accustomed to their naked-tailed neighbors. Indeed, if a burgeoning rat population can keep from scaring off a burgeoning tourist population, rats could be here to stay.
''You see them crawling along the rocks, going in and out of culverts,'' Ross said. ''They eat fish waste off the beach and other washed up debris.
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