Shifting Sands Trouble Commercial Fishermen: Town Seeks To Dredge Near North Inlet

By: Alan Pollock

Topics: Commercial fishing and shellfishing , Erosion

In this aerial view of the North Inlet taken in April, North Beach Island is at the left, with Nauset (North) beach on the right. The choke-point for mariners using the North Inlet is indicated by the arrow. SPENCER KENNARD PHOTO

CHATHAM With sand choking the main inlet to Chatham Harbor across from the lighthouse, most of the commercial fishing fleet is now using the north inlet by Minister's Point to access the Atlantic. But the narrow channel there needs to be widened, and fishermen are hoping that state and federal dredging restrictions don’t leave them high and dry for the 2018 season.

Except at peak high tide, the Chatham Bar opposite Lighthouse Beach is now extremely shallow, choked with a large volume of sand from the eroded outer beach and North Beach Island. At this month’s meeting of the Aunt Lydia’s Cove Committee, members focused on ways to improve the North Inlet, which was created in 2007.

“So its consensus that the South Inlet is not usable at all for you guys?” Health and Natural Resources Director Robert Duncanson asked the group.

“Correct,” Committee Chairman Doug Feeney said. “At dead high tide, it’s fine. But otherwise, no.”

With that pronouncement, the predictions made in 2007 that the north inlet would eventually overtake the main harbor entrance seem to have come true.

Coast Guard Petty Officer Scott Hunter said that, until about a week ago, Station Chatham sent its rescue boats out to sea via the Chatham Bar, but that has now changed.

“We use the north inlet as well,” he said. Even though the newer cut is closer to the north jog of the fish pier where the rescue boats are kept, the change does not reduce the station’s response time, since they have to leave Aunt Lydia’s Cove by rounding south of Tern Island and then hugging the western shore of North Beach Island, where the water is deepest. Fishing boats are taking the same route and encounter reasonably deep water right out to the Atlantic. But in one small stretch, the deep channel is very narrow and needs to be widened. Commercial fishermen are looking to have the dredging done right away, ideally in June or July.

“We just have to buy time for this fishing season,” Feeney said.

Coastal Resources Director Ted Keon said the dredging project isn’t a straightforward request. While the state prohibits dredging through the end of June to protect juvenile horseshoe crabs, and depositing dredged sand is banned through the end of July for the same reason, the town will argue that the areas in question don’t affect horseshoe crabs.

Next, there’s finding a place to deposit the recovered sand. Ideally, it would be placed nearby on North Beach or North Beach Island, which is a short distance from the channel. But doing so would require permission from the Cape Cod National Seashore, which has jurisdiction over the barrier beach and which has rejected dredge spoil disposal requests in the past. That idea also poses logistical challenges, Keon said.

“If – and it’s a very big if – we were able to put it somewhere on the island, then how do you get equipment out there to move the pipe and relocate equipment?” he said. Barging heavy equipment to North Beach Island would add expense and other complications.

Alternately, the recovered sand could be piped to mainland beaches like the one at Scatteree landing. But there’s limited space to receive sand there, Duncanson said. If residents around Minister’s Point could be recruited to pay for the dredging, they could use the sand to nourish their private beaches, but negotiating an arrangement like this could take time, he added.

The town’s dredge permits allow channels to be dug in an area roughly east of Minister’s Point, which includes the spot where the north inlet was formed in 2007. But since that time, the inlet has widened significantly, and the channel that needs to be dredged appears to be just outside the southern limit of the permitted area, Keon said.

“Where we were able to dredge is now outside where this new shoal is,” Keon said.

Town officials planned to meet with regulators this week to inquire about these challenges. But even if the permitting is possible, that doesn’t mean the idea is feasible, Keon said.

“Step back and take a deep breath. If we do dredge this, what’s the likelihood of success?” he said. Historically, officials have shied away from dredging close to the barrier beach, where a single storm can clog a channel with sand.

“Let’s be realistic,” Duncanson told the Aunt Lydia’s Cove committee. “If we go in and we dredge it, we don’t know how long it’s going to last.”

It’s not clear yet what the dredging project would cost, but the $75,000 annual budget for such projects replenishes at the start of the fiscal year on July 1. Harbormaster Stuart Smith said there is a practical consideration.

“Not to pop everyone’s balloon,” he told the committee, but depleting the dredging account by carrying out this project in the late summer would have short-lived benefits. Ideally, the job would be done before July 1, he said.

While town officials continue to pursue the project, Keon said it’s clear the Lighthouse inlet is in trouble when it comes to navigability.

“It’s really going through a lot of changes,” he said. “The outer bar is extremely shallow, with no real defined channel.” For that reason, the focus now appears to be on making the north inlet the new entrance to Chatham Harbor.

Hunter said the north inlet channel is well marked, thanks to the harbormaster’s office, which also installed a lighted day marker on the northwest tip of the beach, which is 10 to 20 feet away from the channel. And mariners using the channel still have to navigate the outer bar, which is under about nine feet of water at high tide, or about two feet at dead low tide. But the area of the narrow shoal is the place fishermen worry most about.

“I would consider that a hugely critical area,” cove committee member James Nash said. “The sooner we can get it done, the better.”

“It’s a priority for us,” Feeney added.


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Twitter: @CCCAlanPollock