CHATHAM – With as many as 3,000 people per day visiting the fish pier in the summer, there's no doubt that it has become one of the town's most popular tourist attractions.
It may also be one of the most dangerous.
Unlike other attractions in town, like the Lighthouse Overlook or downtown shopping, the fish pier is a working industrial facility, with constant truck traffic crossing pedestrian walkways and the daily offloading of thousands of pounds of fish by commercial fishing boats. With few clear restrictions, tourists often wander around the entire facility rather than sticking to the few marked public areas, such as the observation deck and adjacent fish market. While there have been no major accidents in recent memory, it may be just a matter of time, commercial fisherman and Aunt Lydia's Cove Committee Chairman Doug Feeney told selectmen last week.
“We don't mind it,” he said of the crowds of people at the pier from June to August. “We don't mind answering questions. But there's a huge safety issue down there.”
This year more than in the past, he said, he's noticed that pier visitors seem to have a “shopping mentality” and don't pay as close attention as they should to the potential dangers at the facility.
“They just want to see the great whites from the observation deck,” he said. Hiring “18-year-old kids” to monitor the facility doesn't work, he said of summer staff. “That's not the job for them; it has to be someone of authority.”
Health and Natural Resources Director Robert Duncanson agreed with Feeney about the growing popularity of the fish pier. “It's turned into a major tourist attraction in Chatham, and we have to deal with it.” Staff at the pier keep a daily count of visitors; Wharfinger Michael Ryder said roughly 3,000 people per day were counted this June and July. Extrapolated out, that means a total number of more than 200,000 visitors during the 10-week summer season.
This summer there was a good staff at the pier, Duncanson said, mostly more mature folks with experience dealing with people. “We've probably had a better presence there this summer than we've had in other years,” he said.
Several options to try to separate visitors from trucks and offloading areas are being examined as part of a significant upgrade and renovation to the facility, said Duncanson. Short of a “skybridge” from the upper parking lot to the lower level – which raises a host of issues, from an estimated $1 million cost to the ability of tractor trailers to pass underneath – the situation must be addressed on a practical level.
That means changes to the way the facility is laid out. Among the options under consideration is moving charter boats, seal watches and beach ferry services from the south jog to the north jog, and prohibiting pedestrian access to the south jog. Currently, anyone using those services must walk across the lower parking lot, where fishermen park their vehicles and trucks serving the packing building and fishermen offloading over the caplog travel. That would require relocating Coast Guard boats from the north to the south jog, a topic under discussion for several months now. Fishermen are also looking for additional docking space as well a place to wait to offload their catch. The wait now can be as long as three hours, Feeney said, sometimes longer. Commercial fishermen now are dealing with volume, bringing in 6,000 to 9,000 pounds of skate and dogfish per trip, but the packing building lifts have a capacity of only 500 pounds, he said.
“You can't make the buckets go any faster,” he said. “Right now boats are everywhere trying to hang on until you can unload.” That gets into the issue of the leaseholders who control the packing building, which seems too small to handle the current volume of fish being brought to the pier. “But you can't predict the fishing industry,” Feeney added. “Tomorrow dogfish may be gone.”
Another option, Duncanson said, is to create a paved walkway landward of the lower level parking area leading to the south jog. When the parking was expanded recently onto land the town acquired from Chatham Bars Inn, space was left for a walkway and guardrail, he said.
Preliminary engineering work is underway on the replacement of the south jog bulkhead while options are being narrowed. Replacement of the observation deck, however, has run into a snag. In order to comply with handicap access codes, a massive ramp would be required with some six switchbacks, which would impinge on fish pier operations. Duncanson said a number of other options were examined, but “frankly, none of them were any good.” After meeting with the project engineers last week and reviewing the alternatives, the best appeared to be seeking a waiver from the access rules from the state architectural access board. He was scheduled to meet with the town's disability committee Wednesday to review access options for the observation deck, including the possibility of a waiver.
Given the restricted site, “you may have a good argument for a waiver,” agreed Selectman Jeff Dykens.
Plans initially called for completing work on a new observation deck by next season, but with the delay that a waiver would entail, that might not be realistic, Duncanson said.
Overall, more than $5 million in upgrades and renovations are planned for the pier. The funds come from an $11.3 million bond for waterfront infrastructure projects approved by voters in May.
In order to keep the pier from becoming even more congested, the limit on commercial offloading permits has been reduced from 120 to 90, which Feeney said is a “very manageable number.” Most of the reduction came from removing inactive permits, Duncanson said. Twenty of those permits had been created especially for fishermen targeting dogfish, and many were never utilized.
“That's not fair to people who actually need to go and want to go,” Feeney said. There are now 89 active offloading permits, he added, and if there are local residents who are geared up and ready to go fishing, they won't be denied a permit.
Feeney said fishermen are fine with tourists at the pier and understand that the attraction has direct benefits for the community. But they don't want anything to jeopardize their industry, which, he said, “needs to be preserved. It's always been there. People need to remember that this town was built on commercial fishing.”