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Buzzards Bay Estuary: Where the River Meets the Sea

By Sue Tuxbury, Northeast Regional Office Habitat Conservation Division

Semi-enclosed bodies of water where freshwater rivers and streams mix with salt water from the ocean are known as estuaries and are some of the most productive environments on earth.  Buzzard’s Bay is no exception.  This estuary in southeastern Massachusetts measures approximately 28 miles long and 8 miles wide and encompasses approximately 280 miles of shoreline.  Cape Cod and the Elizabeth Islands make up the eastern shore of the bay, with freshwater input largely coming from groundwater and small streams.  Seven major rivers and several small streams flow into the Bay on the western shore of Plymouth and Bristol counties.  Buzzards Bay is also home to New Bedford Harbor, one of the top fishing ports in the United States.

Buzzards Bay chart. Photo credit: NOAA Fisheries 

Eel grass. Photo credit: NOAA Fisheries

As one of the most pristine estuaries in the Northeast, Buzzards Bay supports a number of critical habitats for commercially important finfish and shellfish species.  Eelgrass, an underwater plant that forms meadows rooted in the sediment, is one of the most valuable marine habitats, providing critical food and shelter for Buzzards Bay marine life.  Salt marsh habitat also provides an important role in aquatic food webs while providing shoreline protection.  The bay is also home to rocky and cobble habitat, providing structure for lobsters and crabs, as well as sandy, unvegetated areas suitable for winter flounder spawning.  Oyster and clam beds are prevalent in Buzzards Bay, while the freshwater rivers provide runs for river herring that migrate into freshwater to spawn.

Like many estuaries along the east coast, the water quality in Buzzards Bay is degrading, largely due to too much nutrients, mostly in the form of nitrogen.  This condition is known as eutrophication.   According to the Buzzard’s Bay Coalition 2011 State of the Bay report, the state of living marine resources in Buzzards Bay, including eelgrass, river herring and bay scallops, all indicators of bay health, are in decline (http://www.savebuzzardsbay.org/LearnTheIssues).  These declines, in part, have been attributed to increases in nitrogen input, largely from wastewater and fertilizers as well as watershed and coastal development. 

Damage from the oil spill on the shore.  Photo credit: NOAA Fisheries

Damaged by Oil Spill and Other Activities, NOAA Works with Partners to Restore the Estuary   

In April of 2003, Buzzards Bay suffered a significant disaster when a barge struck rocks off of Westport, MA spilling an estimated 98,000 gallons of fuel oil into the Bay, washing ashore over 90 miles of coastline.  The impacts of this oil spill were significant for wildlife, salt marsh habitats, rocky coasts and beaches, as well as the shellfish.  A Natural Resource Damage Assessment was initiated with NOAA as the lead administrative Trustee for the oil spill.  We worked with state, federal, and tribal partners to evaluate environmental and cultural impacts and initiate restoration activities.

Today, we continue to protect and restore the critical habitats in Buzzards Bay and elsewhere along the east coast.  Through science-based conservation recommendations, we advise permitting agencies such as the US Army Corps of Engineers on ways to modify projects to avoid or minimize impacts to critical marine habitats.  We work closely with our resource agency partners including US Environmental Protection Agency, US Fish and Wildlife Service, MA Division of Marine Fisheries, and MA Office of Coastal Zone Management to help minimize impacts of coastal development projects.  Some recommendations may include time of year restrictions for dredging activities that could impact spawning and juvenile development of winter flounder, a species in significant decline in Southern New England.  Other recommendations include avoiding important habitats such as eelgrass, salt marsh, and shellfish beds and/or utilizing equipment such as a silt curtain to help minimize turbidity impacts in the water column, and minimizing impacts of construction noise on marine species particularly during important river herring migration periods.  By focusing on habitat protection, we serve an important role to ensure these habitats remain and continue to benefit the Buzzards Bay estuary.