Fishing Gear Storage At Airport May End

By: Tim Wood

Topics: Airport , Commercial fishing and shellfishing

The area at the upper right is where fishermen have stored gear for more than three decades. Following a wildlife report warning that birds attracted by the gear could strike airplanes, the airport commission will phase out storage on its property. GOOGLE MAPS GRAPHIC

Safety Concerns Raised Over Potential For Bird Strikes

CHATHAM – For more than three decades, fishermen have stored gear on vacant Chatham Municipal Airport land off Wilfred Road. The practice may soon end, however, after a wildlife consultant raised alarms about birds attracted by the gear become a hazard to airplanes taking off and landing.

The airport commission was all set to end the storage and had drafted a memo to selectmen to serve as a 180-day notice of termination of agreements with fishermen for use of the 2.907-acre area. But after requests from fishermen and town officials last week, the commission agreed to hold off on any action until a final wildlife hazard management plan is filed in the spring as part of an update of the airport's master plan.

Commission members asked the harbormaster department, which oversees the storage area, to clean it up and better organize the gear over the winter.

Currently about a dozen fishermen store gear in the area, which is divided into 5,000-square-foot lots. They pay a fee of $600 a year that goes into the airport's revolving fund. According to the harbormaster's office, there are about 11 fishermen on a waiting list to use the area, which was established after a high-profile case in which a neighbor unsuccessfully sued a lobsterman who was storing traps at his home. Increasing rents and property values also made it difficult for fishermen to find places to store gear off season, so the town agreed to provide a section of vacant land within the airport property for that purpose.

A Sept. 19 memo from wildlife consultants GZA of Springfield strongly recommended that the lobster pots, gillnets and other gear be remove and cleaned up, calling it a “hazardous wildlife attractant.” Crows and gulls were observed scavenging the traps ad the smell of fish was “very strong” during a September inspection. Other bird species were observed foraging, and “significant trash, trailers, wood piles” and other debris at the site may support small mammals that attract species such as red-tailed hawks, owls, fox and coyotes. Nearby White Pond is a major attraction for gulls, which increases the potential hazard caused by the gear storage, the consultants said.

“Since this is on airport property its current state causes a significant liability issue should a wildlife strike occur,” the memo reads. Along with removing the fishing gear to make the airport less attractive to gulls and other birds, it suggests that killing of birds that loaf on the airfield be reassessed.

Bird strikes happen on a “fairly routine” basis at the airport, said Manager Tim Howard.

“We're fortunate that they haven't done anything more than ancillary damage,” he said. The amount of bird activity on the airport property surprised the consultants, he added. “We're just so used to it that it doesn't even phase us,” he said.

Fishermen and others, however, disputed the assertion that the stored gear attracts birds. Lobster pots are cleaned off before being stored and most gillnets are under tarps, said fisherman John Our. “There's nothing on a trap when they bring it home that the seagulls eat,” he said. Canada geese foraging on the grass around the runways are a bigger problem than gulls or crows at the storage area, he added.

“We've been there for over 20 years. There's never been an incident,” he said. “There's no birds there.”

Commission member JP Vario agreed.

“I've worked there myself. I've been there for a week with a machine and hardly saw any birds,” he said.

Fisherman Greg Connors said he's spent hours at the storage location and never witnessed a problem with birds. “It would be a shame to shut down what we really need here for just speculation about birds,” he said. In a letter to the commission in support of fishermen, Cape Cod Commercial Fishermen's Alliance CEO John Pappalardo said the availability of the storage area “has assisted in the successful and important support of Chatham's fishing economy.”

Commission members said they weren't trying to force the fishermen out, but safety is their top priority, said commission chairman Peter Donovan. Commissioner Huntley Harrison said he watched videos demonstrating the damage a bird strike could do to a wing typical of the type on planes flown at the airport and found it “devastating.”

Natural Resources Director Robert Duncanson said he understood the safety concerns. “Even a potential [for a strike] is problematic,” he said. But the consultants need to provide data and photographs to back up their claims and help everyone understand the magnitude of the problem. “That kind of information would go a long way,” he said.

He asked that the harbormaster department and department of public works be allowed to clean up the area over the winter. “Clearly there is material up there that's not supposed to be there, and we'll be working to address that,” Duncanson said. He added that he's put in a budget request for a gate and camera to better monitor who goes in and out of the storage area.

The GZA report also recommended that airport fencing be repaired to prevent other animals from entering the property and that an osprey nest on the radio tower at the police station across George Ryder Road be removed and deterrents be used to prevent ospreys from nesting again.

Donovan said it was worth “taking a shot” at getting the area organized and cleaned up over the winter. Short of the Federal Aviation Administration or town counsel telling the commission the storage must end, “we'll wait until the final report comes out and make sure we have all our ducks in a row,” he said.

Our, at least, wasn't buying the safety angle.

“This is not about birds,” he said, calling the proposal to close down the area “a crock.”

“If you want us out of there, give us the reason why you want us out of there. But this is not about birds,” he said.