New Break 'Here To Stay'

By: Tim Wood

Topics: Erosion

The extent of the new break in South Beach is evident in this aerial view taken April 2. Outermost Harbor Marine can be seen at the center top. KARL SWENSON PHOTO.

Inlet In South Beach Could Prove Troublesome For Fishing Fleet

CHATHAM – For the past few months, shellfisherman Randy Saul has been watching a washover on South Beach, about a half mile south of Lighthouse Beach. He knew there was deep water on the ocean side of the narrowing neck of sand as well as on the west side, in the old Southway. It was only a matter of time before the ocean broke through the low, narrow stretch.

That happened during the April 1 storm. By Sunday morning, boats were navigating through the breach, which was about 150 feet wide at low tide. Shellfisherman Christopher LeClaire took his 20-foot boat through the new break Sunday morning as well.

“At low tide I had no trouble getting through,” he said.

“It's there to stay,” said Saul, who runs the Chatham's Three Breaks Facebook page. He staked his claim as the first to take his boat through the new cut Sunday, posting a video of his depth finder showing more than four feet of water two hours after high tide. Assistant Harbormasters Jason Holm and Mike Ryder took the department's boat through the inlet about a half hour after low tide Monday and found about two feet of water.

The break makes South Beach into an island and creates an opening into the former Southway, once the main navigation channel between Chatham Harbor and the Atlantic which is also connected to Nantucket Sound. Experts say it's likely to hasten the closing off of the main inlet to Chatham Harbor and Pleasant Bay, across from the Lighthouse Beach, which has been getting worse and worse over the past few years.

“It was probably starting to wane,” said coastal geologist Mark Borrelli, director of the Seafloor Mapping Program at the Center for Coastal Studies in Provincetown. The center sent a boat to the new inlet Monday to collect depth, current and other data, and while that information won't be processed until later this week, Borrelli said the new inlet appears to be stabilizing.

“It does look like it's establishing itself already,” he said. “It looks like it's going to be sticking around for a while.”

That could be good news for Nantucket Sound boaters, because it will provide a quicker route to the Atlantic. However, the new inlet's interaction with the main navigation channel could make it difficult for the town's commercial fishing fleet to access the open ocean.

The 1987 breakthrough across from Lighthouse Beach has narrowed in recent years as the southern tip of North Beach Island lengthened, pushing the navigation channel against South Beach, which eroded significantly. The infamous Chatham Bar at the channel entrance has grown more treacherous, said Coastal Resources Director Ted Keon, causing a number of recent accidents, ranging from blow-out windscreens to a boat pitch-poling last fall. A number of commercial fishermen relocated to Saquatucket Harbor in Harwich due to the dangers, even though that significantly increases steaming time to the fishing grounds.

A likely scenario, Keon said, is for the 1987 inlet to deteriorate as more of the waters from the harbor and Pleasant Bay empty out the north inlet, which was created in the Patriot's Day storm in 2007. That's been happening for the past few years, he said. A tide gauge at the fish pier has shown rising low tides, which means that less water is leaving the system during tidal exchanges.

While the 2007 inlet has been used by some boaters to access the Atlantic, shoaling on the inside and outside has limited its use. Borrelli said the 2007 inlet is in a better position now to become the main inlet.

“I don't see any positive effect to this relative to navigation in the lighthouse inlet,” Keon said.

That's a serious issue for the commercial fishing boats that work out of the fish pier. The main inlet is “already showing signs of being a horror show,” said fisherman Doug Feeney, chairman of the town's Aunt Lydia's Cove committee.

“If we can't get out that bar, it just puts 50-plus people out of work,” he said.

A number of fishermen relocated to Saquatucket Harbor in Harwich because of the treacherous conditions on the bar this winter, and town officials are working on plans to increase deep-water anchorage in Stage Harbor to accommodate fishermen who want to move their vessels there. But Stage Harbor still lacks the infrastructure to accommodate even a percentage of the fleet, Feeney said. The town needs to immediately begin working on plans to improve the Eldredge Trap Dock, which was purchased last year, to provide an alternative off-loading area, a process that he estimated will take at least five years.

Feeney said he'd previously spoken with Keon about the possibility of filling in a break if and when it occurred in South Beach. But Keon said there are no permits to dredge the area, it would be expensive, and because the area is within the Cape Cod National Seashore boundary is would likely be prohibited.

“The most significant question would be how long it would remain closed,” he added. The new inlet is just the latest development in an approximately 150-year cycle of the barrier beach along Chatham's eastern shore. The 1987 break began the process, which will over time see the breaking apart of North Beach Island and South Beach, before North (Nauset) Beach begins to accrete to the south.

Whether the new inlet will prove to be a viable navigation channel from Nantucket Sound to the ocean remains to be seen. “We're at the very early phases of that,” Keon said. But the shoaling that occurred on the west side of the 2007 inlet, as the ocean tides pushed sand into Pleasant Bay, may not happen here, since there's a large area of water up to 20 feet deep known as the “Bathtub” in Outermost Harbor just west of the new inlet.

“It's definitely going to be a watch and see how it develops situation,” Keon said. Timing of the break was fortuitous, Natural Resource Director Robert Duncanson told selectmen Tuesday, coming at a time when prevailing storms switch from the winter pattern of northeast winds to the more mild spring and summer southwest direction.

“So there may not be as much pressure on this area as there would be in October or November,” he said.

There are other potential implications of the new break in South Beach. Past breaks have also caused erosion along the inner shore, most notoriously between 1987 and 1992, when nine homes were lost along Chatham Harbor's inner shoreline. Much of the shore was eventually armored with rock revetments to protect against further erosion. The 2007 break opposite Minister's Point hastened erosion of North Beach, resulting in the loss of more than a dozen beach camps.

The new break could result in higher water levels to the west, which could erode the inner shoreline in the Little Beach area. Borrelli said Dr. Graham Giese of the Center of Coastal Studies placed a tide gauge at Outermost Harbor Marine a month ago in anticipation of a break occurring, and that will give an indication of how the inlet is influencing tidal levels. That tidal gauge, as well as others at the fish pier and Meetinghouse Pond in Orleans, at the upper reaches of the Pleasant Bay estuary, will provide a “great data set” to scientists to track changes to the system.

This isn't the first time South Beach has been an island. The 1987 breakthrough cut it off from the mainland, but in the early 1990s a sand bridge, known as a tombolo, connected South Beach to Lighthouse Beach. The area became popular with summer beachgoers and beach walkers, who had access to more than five miles of unspoiled barrier beach, and even more after South Beach connected to South Monomoy Island in 2006. That access became limited after a 2013 break in South Beach opposite North Monomoy.

The 2013 inlet has never been reliable for navigation, and aerial photos taken this week show the beach around it eroding significantly.

Last year, Outermost Harbor Marine could only use the 2013 inlet at mid to high tide. The new South Beach inlet, across the old Southway from the marina, will provide a much quicker outlet to the ocean, said co-owner Harrison Kahn. In the past the marina has run seal tours but hasn't been able to do so in the past few years because of the difficulty getting to the outer beach where the seals are. Now, that area is much more accessible.

“This opens up another passage for business for us,” Kahn said. “Right now it's looking good.”

On the downside, if more sand pours in through the new inlet, the marina may have to do more dredging to keep its entrance channel open, he said.

For the past several years the Southway area has been an important commercial shellfishing area. After Saturday's storm, commercially viable shellfish beds along the inside of South Beach were covered by three feet of sand blown out by the break, said Saul. Clammers are used to shellfish beds moving around, said LeClaire, noting that his father told him that after the Blizzard of 1978, which split Monomoy in two, acres of shellfish grounds were covered by sand. A number of years later, however, those areas became probably the most productive flats in the state.

“Once again, Mother Nature, she's at the helm,” he said. “She calls the shots.”

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