CHATHAM – “Things have changed quite dramatically recently.”
That was how Dr. Robert Duncanson, the town's natural resources department director, described the recent impact of storms on South Beach to the board of selectmen last week.
The beach is “very narrow” and there were multiple overwashes of its southern section, he said. An area just south of Lighthouse Beach is very narrow and could break through.
“It's scarped right up to the edge of the dune,” he said of the outer shore. “There's really no walkable beach at high tide in that area.” The dunes tower up to 10 feet above the beach in some spots, he said.
All of this has significant implications for the area, including the town's fishing fleet. Officials are concerned that conditions in the Chatham Harbor entry channel – the infamous “Chatham Bar” – could deteriorate further, and eventually make it nearly impossible for commercial fishing boats to reach the municipal fish pier. Harbormaster Stuart Smith is proposing a change in waterways regulation to create additional mooring space in Stage Harbor to accommodate members of the fleet if conditions necessitate switching harbors.
“There's always somewhere to get out of Chatham Harbor and Pleasant Bay,” Smith said. “Something always develops.” However, in the past fishing boats drew less water and could make their way over the shoals and the bar; today's vessels require deeper water, and if things continue in the direction they've been going, “it's just not going to be particularly comfortable for some of those deeper draft boats,” he said.
There about a dozen transient moorings in Stage Harbor that are now sometimes used by fishing boats. But with the bar across from the Coast Guard Station now “in really terrible condition,” Smith said he's concerned boats will switch to Stage Harbor sooner rather than later.
“My fear is if we have to accommodate more” boats. Chatham's fortunate in that its close proximity to fishing grounds makes it a perfect staging area for commercial vessels, but with some 120 docking permits issued at the fish pier, there's simply not room enough to accommodate the boats in Stage Harbor, and the only alternatives are other ports farther from the fishing grounds, such as Provincetown, Hyannis and New Bedford. Stage Harbor isn't optimal either, since fishermen would have to steam around Monomoy Point, “something they would prefer not to do. But we may be forced into it.”
The bylaw change would crease additional mooring space along the southeast side of the Stage Harbor channel, inside Crescent Beach. Selectmen voted last week to put the change before voters at the May annual town meeting and to support its passage.
“Hopefully we won't need it,” Smith said.
While “nobody has a crystal ball,” Duncanson didn't sound very optimistic regarding the area around Lighthouse Beach. A break in South Beach could slow the flow of water through the inlet across from the Coast Guard Station, causing more shoaling. The north inlet opposite Minister's Point could become the main outlet for Pleasant Bay, further lessening the tidal pressure on the main inlet, which currently has the dominant tidal flow. Right now that's helping the navigation channel maintain a depth of 20 to 30 feet. Right now the movement of sand from North Beach Island west is pushing the channel up against South Beach, causing the scarping of dunes Duncanson referred to. But that could all fill in if the tidal pressure drops.
“If it breaks through, that is likely to be the death knell to the inlet at Lighthouse Beach,” Duncanson said. This is all in keeping with the predicted pattern of the barrier beach system, but the timing anyone's guess. “What it will look like a year from now is totally unknown,” he said.