Scientists say Mass. won’t see spill effect

Tar balls may land as far as Carolinas

By Marissa Lang
Globe Correspondent / June 23, 2010

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The massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico is not likely to affect Massachusetts, environmental experts told a panel of state legislators yesterday.

Although there is a chance that oil from the worst spill in US history could travel along the Gulf Stream as far as North Carolina, state specialists said that is probably the farthest north any residue, probably in the form of tar balls, would affect the coast.

At yesterday’s hearing, representatives from the Department of Environmental Protection, the Division of Fisheries and Wildlife, and the Division of Marine Fisheries said that it would take very unusual weather patterns to wash any tar north of the Gulf Stream.

Certain migratory animals, such as bluefin tuna and a few species of gulls, could make their way from Massachusetts waters to oil spill patches, said Thomas W. French, assistant director of the Natural Heritage and Endangered Species Program. But, he added, they would probably be brief encounters.

“We don’t have a lot of species that spend time in the Gulf of Mexico,’’ French said, noting that animals able to return to New England after time in the gulf would probably be healthy enough to overcome whatever exposure they had.

Members of the Joint Committee on Environment, Natural Resources and Agriculture, which held yesterday’s hearing, seemed largely satisfied that tar balls were unlikely to reach New England and focused instead on the risk to the region’s ocean life.

Bluefin tuna, which spawn in the gulf during April and May, are one of the most prized fish in the region. The bluefin fishing season began June 1.

Representative William M. Straus, a Mattapoisett Democrat who chairs the committee, asked Paul J. Diodati, director of the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries, whether the tuna population would fall as a result of the leak.

Diodati said the crude would only have an impact on larvae and eggs. The tiny larvae, about the size of a pencil tip, would not survive the encounter, he said.

But because bluefin tuna are known to live about 20 years and most tuna caught by the industry are between 5 and 6 years old, Diodati said, the region probably would not notice if tuna larvae died in the gulf, and in any case it would be difficult to measure.

After the hearing, Straus said he was still concerned about the impact on the tuna trade years from now and said the state has to think long-term in responding to the oil leak.

If any oil were to wash into the Massachusetts area, cleanup efforts would be spearheaded by the Department of Environmental Protection.

Straus said he believes that department and other agencies were well prepared, but noted the type of barrier the state uses to protect against liquid oil spills might not be as effective as booms specifically designed to block tar balls.

The committee will reconvene in early August to review the status of the spill.

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