Through Clean Bilge program, commercial fishermen are protecting New Bedford Harbor from oil spills

On a warm, sunny morning last October, Rodney Avila walked the docks on New Bedford Harbor, chatting with fishermen next to the large commercial fishing vessels that line the harbor. “I’ve been coming here since I was 9 years old,” said Avila, a fifth-generation fisherman who once worked on vessels that operated out of New Bedford. “And I’ve never left.”

Rodney Avila with commercial fishermen on New Bedford Harbor

Rodney Avila (right) talks with commercial fishermen on New Bedford Harbor about the Clean Bilge pumpout program.

These days, Avila is walking with a new sense of purpose. As outreach coordinator for “Clean Bilge,” a new pilot program funded by the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection (MassDEP) and run by the New Bedford Harbor Development Commission, Avila is working to sign up boats for free bilge pumpouts to prevent small oil spills in New Bedford Harbor.

Since 2010, New Bedford Harbor has seen at least one recorded oil spill every month. Some months, there have been as many as five small spills. In over 60 percent of these cases, no responsible party was ever identified, earning them the label “mystery spills.”

When left alone, these small spills add up to a big problem. Even a single cup of oil has the potential to contaminate an area the size of a football field.

That’s why the Clean Bilge program was created. Contaminated bilge water is considered the most likely source of spills in the harbor. Fuel and oil can leak into bilge, which is then released into the harbor when fishing vessels return to port. By offering free pumpouts and inspections to commercial fishing vessels, Clean Bilge is preventing small oil spills before they happen.

Since the program began last October, 127 vessels have signed up to participate and 48 have had their bilge pumped. From those pumpouts, the program has collected more than 14,000 gallons of bilge water – and nearly 25% of that was pure waste oil. “That oil will never end up in the harbor,” said Avila.

Bilge pumpout truck next to a commercial fishing vessel on New Bedford Harbor

A pumpout truck removes bilge water from a fishing vessel on New Bedford Harbor. This bilge water – and any oil it contains – is recycled at a collection facility instead of ending up in the harbor.

The Coalition has advocated for a bilge pumpout facility in New Bedford Harbor for decades. Although New Bedford first identified “mystery” oil spills as a problem 25 years ago, the city has taken little action to address the issue until now. In 2010, the Coalition helped build a partnership between New Bedford, Fairhaven, MassDEP, and the U.S. Coast Guard to finally find a solution.

“We are the generation changing New Bedford Harbor, and people are seeing the difference,” said Coalition President Mark Rasmussen at a public announcement of the Clean Bilge program today in New Bedford. “This persistent ‘mystery’ oil spill problem has no place in the harbor we’re all working so hard to restore every day.”

Clean Bilge is considered a pilot program, and funding for the program is expected to continue for at least another year. But to truly stop mystery oil spills, this effort has proven that the Port of New Bedford needs a permanent bilge collection service on the waterfront.

To Avila and many of the fishermen who’ve signed up for Clean Bilge, a bilge pumpout service on New Bedford Harbor is common sense.

“Oil hurts everybody – fishermen, the environment, your family at the beach in the summer,” said Avila. “Nobody wants to swim in oily water.”

For more information about the Clean Bilge program, contact Rodney Avila at (508) 889-0401.

Category: On the Bay

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