N.H. loon preservation gets $800K settlement 18 years after oil spill

  • FILE - In this July 2007 file photo, a loon with a chick on its back makes its way across Pierce Pond near North New Portland, Maine. Generations have passed since common loons could be seen throughout Massachusetts. But a Maine-based conservation group is out to change that with a plan to transplant loon chicks to Massachusetts during the summer of 2106. (AP Photo/Pat Wellenbach, File) Pat Wellenbach

  • Three common loons on Squam Lake last month. GEOFF FORESTER

  • Loons dip and dive for food on a hot day on the Jaffrey side of Contoocook Lake on Monday afternoon. Staff photos by Ashley Saari

  • “Late Summer Loon,” a photograph by Sarah Cail

  • Loons on Pleasant Pond in Francestown are making use of a floating nest this year, for the first time since pond residents have been putting it out for that use. Staff photo by Ashley Saari

Monitor staff
Published: 6/18/2021 12:51:15 PM

It has taken 18 years, but New Hampshire’s loon population will finally get a benefit from an oil tanker spill that left 98,000 gallons of fuel oil along the Massachusetts shoreline, killing at least 530 loons that were wintering there.

“We know New Hampshire loons were affected by that oil spill, some were lost. It was a real setback to our recovery efforts,” said Harry Vogel, director of the Loon Preservation Committee in Moultonboro.

The group received $844,881 out of the roughly $20 million settlement with Bouchard Transportation Co. It will be paid out over five years, creating a “real shot in the arm” to the group, which has an annual operating budget of almost one million dollars. Most of its income comes from donations and membership fees.

The spill occurred April 27, 2003, when the tanker barge Bouchard120 hit a bedrock ledge in Buzzards Bay, on the south side of Cape Cod, ripping a 12-foot hole in its hull and dumping fuel oil on beaches in Massachusetts and Rhode Island.

Loons in Northern New England and New York were affected because Buzzard Bay is a major spot for them to spend the winter and many had not yet returned to their summer nesting areas. The settlement announced Wednesday includes payments to loon-preservation groups in Vermont, Maine and New York as well as New Hampshire.

Vogel said the money would be used for the group’s various activities, including building rafts to aid nesting, roping off loon nests to keep boats from disturbing them, rescuing injured loons for rehabilitation, and education programs.

Programs include lead-tackle buyback efforts, which pay fishermen to turn in lead sinkers and jigs to help them buy non-toxic alternatives. Lead tackle smaller than 1 ounce is illegal in New Hampshire because loons can swallow it and be poisoned. Details are at loonsafe.org.

The Loon Preservation Committee dates back 45 years, at a time when there were fewer than 100 pairs of birds on the state’s waterways. Last year, Vogel said, 321 territorial pairs were seen, a record, and 196 chicks hatched with 151 surviving. Although the population has tripled since preservation efforts began, biologists estimates this is only about half the population level that existed before human intervention. 

The iconic bird faces other pressures, including the effects of climate change. “We are close to the southern edge of their range, so they have risk from increasing temperatures and storm events,” Vogel said.

As to why it took 18 years for a settlement to be paid out from the Bouchard120 spill, Vogel said a number of factors were involved, including the 2010 explosion of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico, which caused the biggest oil spill in history.

“The Deepwater Horizon spill took up all the oxygen in the room” for preservation and settlement efforts, he said. “This was shoved to the back burner for a while.”

(David Brooks can be reached at 369-3313 or dbrooks@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @GraniteGeek.)
David Brooks bio photo

David Brooks is a reporter and the writer of the sci/tech column Granite Geek and blog granitegeek.org, as well as moderator of Science Cafe Concord events. After obtaining a bachelor’s degree in mathematics he became a newspaperman, working in Virginia and Tennessee before spending 28 years at the Nashua Telegraph . He joined the Monitor in 2015.

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