CHATHAM – With docking space at a premium, town officials are considering ending the U.S. Coast Guard's lease at the fish pier's north jog.
The Aunt Lydia's Cove committee last week voted to recommend to selectmen that the lease, which ends next fall, not be renewed.
Nobody wants the Coast Guard to vacate the premises, however. The Aunt Lydia's Cove and waterways advisory committee are reviewing options for improvements at the town-owned fish pier and will ask a newly hired engineer to recommend the best spot to relocate the two Coast Guard vessels currently stationed at the facility.
“No one wants to say no Coast Guard at the pier,” Natural Resources Director Robert Duncanson told the waterways committee last Thursday. “But the space is valuable for the fishing fleet, and there may be ways to more efficiently use it.”
Under the current lease, the Coast Guard pays the town $670 a month, or $8,040 annually, for 100 feet of dockage space at the pier and two parking spaces. The five-year lease expires Sept. 30.
Station Chatham Senior Chief Corbin Ross said the agency is aware that the town is trying to optimize the space at the pier.
“We want to support that effort, but we also want to sustain the Coast Guard's mission and ensure we're doing everything we can to keep the fishermen safe,” he said.
The Coast Guard maintains two 42-foot nearshore lifeboats at the pier, as well as a similar boat at Stage Harbor Marine. Maintaining assets on both sides of town allows the station to cover its operational area, on Nantucket Sound from Yarmouth east to Chatham, and on the east side the Atlantic north to North Eastham as well as Chatham Harbor and Pleasant Bay.
The station is also working on obtaining a smaller shallow-draft boat to cover areas the larger vessels can't access, Ross said. That could also be a factor in any decision to relocate the station's assets at the pier.
A recent report assessing the needs at the fish pier identified more than $5 million in potential projects, ranging from replacing the observation deck on the packing building – an immediate priority that town meeting funded in May – to rebuilding the south jog and replacing and expanding floats. At last Thursday's Aunt Lydia's Cove committee meeting, Duncanson said an engineer has been chosen to begin scoping out the work and asked committee members for suggestions. Some of the ideas revolved around access for the public and keeping people away from working areas on the south jog. Reconfiguring that area could provide space for the Coast Guard boats and open up their current north jog space for use by commercial fishing boats.
“We could really use that spot,” said fisherman Jim Nash.
There are current 120 docking permits issued at the pier, more than ever before, said Harbormaster Stuart Smith. Bulkhead docking space is important to allow boats to offload their catch, while the Coast Guard might be able to use space on a floating dock.
The bulkhead space is most needed during the seven or months when the pier is most congested. During that time, when local fishermen are catching dogfish, lobster and other species, “it's extremely busy and crowded,” Smith said. It is less crowded during the remaining months; cod and other groundfish the fleet used to catch in the winter aren't there any longer. “The fishery has just changed,” he said.
“There's some hurdles here,” he cautioned about moving the Coast Guard boats to a reconfigured south jog. “There's a relatively lengthy permitting process, not to mention engineering and funding.” Details of design, permitting and funding would have to be worked out by the recently hired engineer, he added.
The work being eyed at the pier is likely to take longer than a year; Smith said as long as a plan is in place, the town could extend the Coast Guard lease until a new location for its vessels is ready.
Aunt Lydia's Cove committee member Joel Rottner said that alternative location needs to be determined and a plan in place for using the current Coast Guard dockage before the group brings its recommendation to the board of selectmen.
“I think the selectmen are going to want to hear what is the space going to be used for, because they have to sell if to the town,” he said.
Developing concepts on the best place to accommodate the Coast Guard will be included in the charge given to the engineer working on the fish pier plans, Duncanson said.