Fishermen Speak Up For Bulkhead Project

by Ryan Bray
Tom Smith, an Orleans resident and fisherman, addresses the finance committee about the proposed $8.3 million Rock Harbor bulkhead project March 21.  RYAN BRAY PHOTO Tom Smith, an Orleans resident and fisherman, addresses the finance committee about the proposed $8.3 million Rock Harbor bulkhead project March 21. RYAN BRAY PHOTO

ORLEANS – Tom Smith has been fishing out of Rock Harbor most of his life. But he won’t dock his boat at the harbor’s commercial bulkhead.

“I refuse to tie my boat there,” Smith, a commercial fisherman and lifelong Orleans resident, told the finance committee in March. “That’s why I have a charter boat slip. It’s just so dangerous.”

Smith was one of several local fishermen that spoke up in favor of plans to build a new bulkhead at the harbor, funding for which will go to annual town meeting for a vote on May 13. An override of $8.3 million is being sought for the project. In addition to passage of a town meeting article, the funding also needs approval at the annual town election on May 21.

Plans include a new concrete bulkhead, two new floating docks and space for public seating and viewing. The new bulkhead will include space for commercial boats to back into, so boats don’t have to tie abreast to one impeding the navigation channel.

Nate Sears, the town’s harbormaster and natural resources manager, said the current state of the bulkhead system poses safety issues to the 12 to 15 commercial fishermen that use it to get on and off their vessels and offload their catch. Of particular concern are aging timber ladders that fishermen have to navigate.

“People have fallen off these ladders,” he told the finance committee. “The fishermen in this room tonight all have stories about close calls or injuries they’ve sustained at Rock Harbor coming up and down those ladders trying to get up and down off their boats to the loading dock.”

There’s also an issue of equity, Sears said. Part of the goal of the project is to provide commercial fishermen with the same amenities that recreational boaters currently have.

Smith said he fishes out of Rock Harbor about half the year. But compared to new piers that have been constructed in recent years in towns including Chatham and Provincetown, visiting the bulkhead at Rock Harbor is like “going back in time.”

“It’s really the worst shape out of all the harbors I go in and out of,” he said.

As a town facility, Smith said, Orleans residents and visitors deserve a new bulkhead system that’s modern and up to par with those in neighboring communities.

“I just feel like everybody who’s a taxpayer in this town owns that harbor, and it’s falling down,” he said.

Buddy Wilson, who said he’s been fishing the harbor since the 1960s, said climate change has done a number on the existing system, bringing in higher tides that have served to corrode the bulkhead. He also said there needs to be better separation between the public and working fishermen, something the proposed public viewing area can provide.

Suzanne Phillips, a member of the town’s shellfish and waterways advisory committee, works seasonally at the Chatham Fish Pier, where she said she’s seen firsthand how interested visitors to the Cape are in the region’s maritime and fishing culture.

“A lot of people who come here don’t have the ocean,” she said. “They have other places that just aren’t as beautiful and cool.”

But others said a new bulkhead would have benefits beyond supporting local fishermen. Bill Amaru, a longtime fisherman and member of the shellfish and waterways advisory committee, said the new system would appropriately honor the town’s maritime history. He said the town has strayed from the history toward becoming what he called “a retirement and recreational community.”

“We still have some connections to the ocean and the historic nature of our existence. Rock Harbor is one of those places, perhaps the last of those places,” he said.

“I just want to say there’s other values to Rock Harbor…that can’t be expressed in dollars and cents,” added Phillips.

But with an article seeking funding head to town meeting, the dollars and cents matter. The town has an opportunity to seek two grants that if awarded could collectively knock up to $3 million off the project cost. Those include a $1 million grant from the state’s Seaport Economic Council and a $2 million grant through the Office of Coastal Zone Management coastal resiliency grant program.

Sears said the bulkhead project stands a good chance of receiving the full $1 million through the Seaport Economic Council, while the project also fits “the resiliency model” for the CZM grant.

Finance committee members said that with the current state of the bulkhead and pier system, money will need to be spent eventually to either repair or replace it. But it will likely cost more money the longer the town waits to act.

“This is a dangerous situation here,” said Nick Athanassiou, who chairs the finance committee. “What I’m trying to say is I would prefer to think of it in my mind as something we have to do anyway, and if we get the [$3] million on top, great.”

Sears estimated that the town brings in about $2.6 million in seafood a year, with much of that coming in through Rock Harbor. Ed Mahoney of the finance committee said that could be a big selling point to voters in May.

“This is a gem,” he said. “It’s got history, it’s got beauty and it pays. It’s got economic value to it.”

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