Restoration Plan Drafted for Birds Killed by 2003 Buzzards Bay Oil Spill

An estimated 531 common loons were killed either through direct or indirect effects of the barge oil spill. (istock)

An estimated 531 common loons were killed either through direct or indirect effects of the barge oil spill. (istock)

By ecoRI News staff

State and federal environmental agencies have released a draft plan to restore common loons and other birds that were killed by the 2003 Bouchard Barge No. 120 oil spill in Buzzards Bay, in both Rhode Island and Massachusetts waters.

The draft plan is available for public comment through Oct. 31. Written comments can be sent via email to molly_sperduto@fws.gov. The agencies are scheduled to hold an information meeting and webinar Sept. 12 at 1 p.m. at the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife office at 1 Rabbit Hill Road in Westborough. To participate remotely in the meeting, click here.

The plan is the first of two documents to address birds injured by the spill, both of which will be funded by a 2017 $13.3 million natural resource damages settlement from Bouchard Transportation Co. Inc. Of this total, $7.3 million is designated to plan, implement, oversee, and monitor common loon restoration, while another $1 million will go toward other birds impacted by the spill. Another $5 million from the settlement will address injuries to common and roseate terns through a separate future plan.

This plan describes the injuries resulting from the 98,000-gallon spill that oiled 100 miles of shoreline, including coastal habitats where birds feed, nest, and in some cases overwinter. An estimated 531 common loons and more than 500 other birds, including common eiders, black scoters, red-throated loons, grebes, cormorants, and gulls, were killed either through direct or indirect effects of the spill.

Common loons winter in large numbers in Buzzards Bay. Common eiders experienced the highest mortality of all other bird species, with 83 birds killed by the oiling. The ultimate goal of the damage assessment and restoration process is to replace, rehabilitate, or acquire the equivalent of injured natural resources and resource services lost because of the release of hazardous substances, at no cost to taxpayers.

“The trustees have carefully considered a number of options to restore birds killed by the 2003 oil spill, especially the common loons that are icons of our northern lakes,” said Tom Chapman, supervisor of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service’s New England office. “We invite people to learn about and provide feedback on these ideas, in hopes of soon starting restoration efforts benefiting birds throughout New England.”

The draft plan evaluates multiple restoration alternatives that were developed in coordination with loon and other bird experts. Based on factors to ensure successful restoration, as well as criteria established by federal regulations, the trustees recommend the following projects:

Release 63-84 common loon chicks from Maine and New York in historic Massachusetts breeding sites in Assawompset Pond Complex and the October Mountain Reservoir, in hopes of returning this species to more areas in the state ($3,185,000). In Massachusetts, common loons disappeared for decades until 1975, and have since primarily returned to breed in Quabbin and Wachusetts reservoirs, migrating offshore to winter.

Increase survival of nesting loons at breeding sites across New England ($3,185,000) through: creating artificial nesting sites on rafts that withstand fluctuating water levels and reduce disturbance from predators and people; adding signs and wardens to watch over nests to reduce disturbance; preserving land to protect breeding habitat; and reducing exposure to lead tackle through outreach and tackle exchange programs.

The trustees’ preferred alternatives to restore other bird species are:

Permanently protect more than 300 acres of high-quality coastal habitats on Cuttyhunk Island off the coast of Massachusetts ($500,000).

Identify a similar habitat protection project in Rhode Island through a competitive grant process ($1,274,000).

Use signage, nest monitoring, and wardens to protect common eider nests in the Boston Harbor Islands and Cuttyhunk Island ($100,000).