Loon death prompts call for rules on boat races

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The death of a loon on Watchic Lake in Standish is fueling calls for the state to change its rules so that wildlife is protected from high-speed boat races. 

There’s no consideration for the wildlife,” said Kim Lajoie, a New Hampshire resident who has owned a home on Watchic Lake since 2010. “There’s no consideration for the people that live around the lake. Every lake in the state is vulnerable because of the way the permit is issued.”

But the organizer of the boat race and the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife say there is no evidence that directly connects the loon’s death to the event. Shawn Cavanaugh, who has overseen the races at Watchic Lake since 2003, said he goes above and beyond the requirements of the permit to protect both boaters and wildlife.

“It is a privilege to use the water,” Cavanaugh said. “We comply with our permit just as you would when you register your boat or your jetski or take your boater safety course.”

Watchic Lake covers 450 acres and has nearly 250 properties on its shores.

One stretch of waterfront is owned by the Kiwanis Club of Standish. Members of the public can access the beach for a small fee. Twice a year, in May and September, the Kiwanis Club hosts the boat races as a fundraiser. Their partner for the event is the South Shore Outboard Association, which puts on similar races across New England.

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Cavanaugh, who is retired and lives in Shapleigh, is a member of both groups. He and his son travel across the country to race the lightweight hydroplanes. Between 10 and 12 feet long, the vessels can skim across the water at speeds above 70 mph. Over 15 years, he has organized the two-day competition on Watchic Lake 18 times. 

Cavanaugh said the most recent race in May brought in more than $1,000 for the Kiwanis Club. That revenue helps maintain scholarships for local high school students, host community events and run a medical equipment loan program. 

“The boat races are one of the biggest fundraisers that we have,” Cavanaugh said.

The races also have long faced opposition from the lake residents.  

2005 article from the Lakes Region Weekly reported that homeowners on the lake felt the races were too loud and took over too large a portion of the lake. At the time, members of the lake association also inspected the boats for milfoil and other invasive species before the event. 

Steve and Kim Lajoie live in Hopkinton, New Hampshire, but bought their Watchic Lake home eight years ago. They visit frequently in the summer, but they stay away during the race weekend for the same reasons the neighbors cited years ago. 

“This thing is like having the Indy 500 in your neighborhood,” Kim Lajoie said. 

In recent years, the Lajoies have gotten involved with the Watchic Lake Association, monitoring the local loon population and volunteering during the annual loon count with Maine Audubon. They learned there are two nesting pairs of loons on the lake — one on the west side, another on the east side. So they were among the first to know when a homeowner found the body of a loon May 20, during the weekend of the hydroplane boat races. It had a long gash on its back that was still bleeding, and multiple tags from the Biodiversity Research Institute in Portland. 

The homeowner called the Maine Warden Service to report the death, hoping to turn it over to the research institute for examination. But the Biodiversity Research Institute never received the body of the bird for a necropsy because the warden disposed of it in the woods.

Michelle Kneeland is a veterinarian at the Biodiversity Research Institute who performs 20 to 30 necropsies on Maine loons each year. The pictures she saw of the dead loon did not provide enough evidence to determine a cause of death, she said. They could have come from a boat propeller, she said, but it also could have happened after the loon died from another cause. 

From the bands in the images, however, Kneeland said she could tell the loon was an adult male tagged in 2014. She estimated he was at least 7 years old, and she knows he has fathered chicks in the past. 

“At the time we banded him, he had two chicks,” she said.
A spokesman for the Warden Service said the death was recorded as part of an ongoing study of loon mortality in the region. 

“In the game warden’s opinion, the injuries sustained and the cause of death were caused by a propeller strike and was not due to environmental or ingestion-related reasons,” Cpl. John McDonald wrote in an email. “Actions taken by the game warden in this incident were appropriate under the circumstances.” 

The Lajoies sent a letter to the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife to express their concern about the way the loon’s death was handled, calling it a mistake to not save the bird for future examination. But even without an official ruling on cause of death, they said the circumstantial evidence that the loon was killed during the boat race is overwhelming. The boat race takes place not far from the nest on the west side of the lake, they said, and there is little traffic other than the hydroplane boats during that weekend. 

“This is a deeply, deeply unpopular race,” Kim Lajoie said. “It puts our loon population in jeopardy, and now we have a dead one.”

There are penalties for killing a loon in Maine up to one year in jail and up to a $1,000 fine. But both the state and Cavanaugh argued that the evidence is not so clear. Cavanaugh said a small racing boat would be damaged or flipped upon impact with a bird or other object in the water, and he did not know of any crashes during the race weekend. He also said the loon was found too far from the race course — half a mile — for there to be a connection, and there is other boat traffic on the water during that weekend. 

It’s not impossible that it was struck during our event, but it’s highly unlikely,” he said.

Cavanaugh said the race organizers also staff patrol boats on the perimeter of the course, which are not required by law. Their job is to warn other boats away from the race, rescue fallen racers and to stop the race if birds or floating objects are on the course. 

“If there’s a loon in turn three, the race could be stopped immediately,” Cavanaugh said. “We exceed our permitting requirements.”

Maine Audubon estimates there are just under 3,000 loons in the southern half of the state. But Susan Gallo, a wildlife biologist and project manager, said many are not old enough to nest, and loons are more successful in breeding as they get older.

“Every breeding adult matters in our population,” Gallo said.

The Lajoies and other members of the Watchic Lake Association began to research the permitting process for water events. While the statute says the organizer should safeguard people and property, it never mentions animals. 

There’s no requirement that has anything to do with wildlife,” said Paul McNulty, the association president. “That was a surprise to me.”

McNulty said he plans to meet with the Kiwanis Club to talk about future races, and he hopes they can find a way to move the event away from Watchic Lake. The Lajoies want to push for new rules, even if that requires a change in legislation. Gallo believes the department is reviewing its permitting process, and she shared her ideas on how to better protect wildlife during this event for example, by moving the date of the event outside of the nesting season for loons. 

“Whenever we can reduce one of their causes of mortality, it’s a good thing,” Gallo said.

The spokesman for the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife would not say whether an internal review is taking place. For now, however, Cavanaugh said he already has a permit for the next race in September.

“The state owns the body of water, and it’s there for all those that comply to enjoy it,” Cavanaugh said.

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