The diesel spill in the Millers River this week is a bit of an environmental disaster, and not just because it happened in Thomas & Thomas’s backyard. This spill was more than 6,000 gallons and eventually made its way to the Connecticut River, but through the hard work and expertise of some dedicated folks it was handled pretty well, all things considered. Sadly, spills like this are not uncommon enough.
According to NOAA, diesel fuel spills tend to evaporate within a few days, even under cold conditions. But the fact that diesel does not persist in the environment as long as heavier oils does not mean it isn’t a problem. Fish, invertebrates, birds, and other animals are all negatively impacted and can die through toxic effects. In birds, the matting of feathers can lead to hypothermia when they come in contact with these spills. Where diesel soaks into the soil it typically kills plants and animals.
Fortunately, this type of spill is unlikely to persist for long periods of time. Where there is sufficient oxygen all diesel should degrade within about two months. The heavier ‘black oils’ like the Valdez spill in Alaska last in the sediment for much longer. For instance, a close friend of mine works for an environmental monitoring company, and one of his jobs is monitoring the Valdez spill. On his trips there, oil is still found in sedement mere inches below the surface. In West Falmouth on Cape Cod, Massachusetts, there is still oil in the sediment from a barge that ran aground in 1969.
A quick Google search of many places that I love to fish, paired with the search term ‘oil spill’, yields a laundry lists of disasters, from relatively small to enormous. I’ve fished for salmon and trout near Valdez, trout on the Millers, pike on the Connecticut, many salt water fishes in West Falmouth - and it doesn’t end there. The Yellowstone River in Montana has suffered through large spills in 2011 and 2015. In 2010 the Deepwater Horizon tragedy ravaged the Gulf of Mexico. Some suspect that bluefin tuna spawning habitat was severely impacted by this spill. In 2019 Hurricane Dorian caused another huge oil spill on Grand Bahama.
I’m sure it’s not lost on any of you that all of these spills occurred in places where we fish. Something that many of us may ignore is that we all burned fossil fuels getting to these places. Perhaps the take home message here should be that we need to lobby our regulators to make the process of harvesting and transporting oil as safe as possible, even at the price of having to open our wallets to pay for safer methods.
The spill on the Millers River was small compared to many others. It was also due to a vehicle crash and not a hurricane, pipeline failure, or a ship running aground. We as anglers like to be armchair biologists and consider ourselves stewards of our waterways. We are lucky to have many angling groups that have made a difference in making our fisheries better, and protecting fisheries that are relatively pristine. Connecting with local conservation groups such as The Millers River Watershed Council and the local TU chapter are great ways to get involved and become an environmental steward.
by T&T Ambassador and Conservationist Ross K Kessler