CHATHAM – An overflow, standing room only crowd turned out on Saturday morning at the community center to heard what the future holds for the town's changing shoreline. Sponsored by the Chatham Alliance for Preservation and Conservation, a panel of four local coastal experts examined the subtle and often dramatic changes to Chatham’s dynamic 60 miles of shoreline.
Chatham is on the leading edge of dramatic coastline change, and recent events have only sped up that process, impacting fishing and shell fishing, shorefront properties and recreational activities, like swimming and boating.
Panelist Greg Berman from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution set the stage. Over many thousands of years the sea level has risen and receded as the glaciers melted. The wind and waves have transported sediment, bringing sand from one area to another and migrating marshes inland.
Coastal Resources Director Ted Keon pinpointed a particular moment of change. From 1938 to 1987, mainland Chatham was protected by the outer beach, which held off ocean waves and allowed just the occasional storm surge. “We were fat and happy,” he said, to the laughter of the audience. Since 1987, however, there has been a lot of change, he stressed, pointing to the major break that year and subsequent breaks and continued deterioration in the beach, culminating this year in the April 1 “Fool’s Break.”
As sand migrates south from the cliffs of Truro, Wellfleet and Eastham to Monomoy Island and the coastal banks erode into the coastal beach, a number of responses are underway. Sand re-nourishment using dredged sediment, fiber rolls to hold back the beach and revetment armoring of the shoreline are just a few of the methods being used.
Sediment is slowly squeezing the ’87 inlet and it will not be viable in the future, Keon said. And dredging becomes more necessary to retain navigation channels for the fishing industry as well as for recreational boaters. However, there is a potential environmental effect to dredging and the impact on horseshoe crabs and other marine life must be taken into account.
Since 1989 the town has dredged up and re-used 1.2 million cubic yards of sand, from Aunt Lydia’s Cove to Stage Harbor and the Morris Island cut, to name just a few areas. The effort is “not insubstantial and not inexpensive,” Keon said. Work is done by the Army Corps of Engineers, the county and the town. Public/private partnerships whereby private groups that need sand fund the work can bring savings to the town.
Chatham Harbormaster Stuart Smith called dredging “complicated but a lifeline for navigation.” Since the spring some of the Chatham fishing fleet of around 100 boats have been in Stage Harbor – due to the dangers of crossing the bar at the '87 inlet – but they are steadily leaving and moving back to Aunt Lydia’s cove, which is closer to fishing grounds and has better facilities for offloading of their catch.
Calling the 2013 south inlet opposite Monomoy “very messy,” Smith noted that it is often so shallow as to be impassable. “The typical boat coming from the west must go at half tide or better,” he said. Local knowledge of the waters around Chatham is essential for mariners.
Jamie Bassett, a Chatham shellfisherman and chair of the shellfish advisory committee, can testify to that “messiness.” The changing coastline and migrating sediment has had a real impact and has made life more challenging for Chatham’s 300 commercial shellfishermen.
“Our workday starts the day before,” he said. Monitoring the weather and the wind and any small variations is critical to a navigating a safe and successful workday on the Monomoy flats. Thunderstorms are a hazard to be avoided. “I have been caught in a few and I don’t want to repeat that!” Bassett said.
Bassett noted that a shallow draft flat bottom boat is necessary. Navigating to the flats can be hazardous, as the depth and the current can quickly shift. And since clamming is begun at dead low tide, shellfishermen must head there as the water leaves, and the force of the water can be dangerous at times. “If you don’t time your arrival right, your boat can get caught by the current. Once water comes over the transom of the boat, it’s curtains!” he said, adding, “I wear a life jacket every day.”
Once out on the flats, “I’m home free. It’s beautiful there and pristine and the product is wonderful,” he added. Due to the very low tide, fishermen are in essence stranded until the the tide begins to rise. An accident or other emergency could only be addressed by air and it would take at least an hour for rescuers to arrive. “Make sure you plan your day, watch the weather, pack a lunch and be safe,” Bassett concluded.