Desperate Mariners Seek Answers

By: Alan Pollock

Topics: Commercial fishing and shellfishing , Waterways , Dredging

A dredge from Barnstable County works in Pleasant Bay.   FILE PHOTO

CHATHAM  With fishing boats and Coast Guard surfboats now frequently bottled up in Chatham Harbor because of severe shoaling – and with peak commercial fishing season less than three months away – mariners are demanding answers. Town officials have very few.

“June is coming very close for us,” commercial fisherman and Aunt Lydia’s Cove Committee Chairman Doug Feeney told selectmen Monday. “We’re in need right now and this is a crucial time for the fishing fleet,” he said. Feeney urged the town to do whatever it can to restore access to and from the harbor, which, for larger boats, is now effectively shoaled in except at peak high tide.

The harbor channel opposite Lighthouse Beach is “essentially non-navigable for any of the larger vessels,” Coastal Resources Director Ted Keon told the meeting. “It’s striking how much material is in the South Inlet.” While the North Inlet provides good water for vessels accessing Pleasant Bay, the narrow access channel south into the harbor is now extremely shallow, forcing commercial fishing boats to time their departures and arrivals to coincide with high water.

Any effort to dredge the area faces a number of hurdles, starting with the legal challenge being posed by a Minister’s Point property owner Gerald Milden, who claimed that previous dredging by the town prompted a change in currents that cause his sea wall to partially collapse in a storm last year. The town obtained emergency permitting to dredge the entry channel last year, but high surf and winter storms kept the work from being carried out. The conservation commission issued an order of conditions allowing the town to dredge in the same area this year, but Milden appealed that order to state regulators.

The state Department of Environmental Protection has the option to either uphold the town’s order, deny it, or add additional conditions. That process is still pending, Natural Resources Director Robert Duncanson said. If Milden disagrees with the DEP’s decision, he can request an adjudicatory hearing.

“That process can take months,” Duncanson said. The order can also be challenged in superior court, he added. Until the matter is settled, two other required permits also remain on hold.

Legal and logistical problems aside, dredging is limited by two time-of-year closures designed to protect spawning horseshoe crabs and juvenile winter flounder, Keon said. State fisheries officials have signaled a willingness to ease one of those restrictions, but will need additional data before considering the other, he said. Finally, any dredging would need to work with the county dredge crew’s schedule, and would naturally require funding. Until the new fiscal year arrives, the dredging account is “quite low,” Keon said.

Selectman Jeffrey Dykens said he’s frustrated by the impediments.

“Our hands are tied in multiple ways,” he said. Dykens asked whether, if dredging became possible, it would even be feasible. The disposal of the dredged sand would be a challenge, Keon replied. The closest place to discharge the sand would be on the outside of North Beach Island, but that area is within the Cape Cod National Seashore. Investigating and permitting such an operation would add around a half-million dollars to the job, Keon said.

Any channel dredged this spring would hopefully survive the summer, but would likely fill in after a year, he added.

Board member Shareen Davis echoed the frustration, saying the town needs to consider the economic impact of a closed harbor. Some value the fleet’s annual landings at $30 million, she said, but that doesn’t capture the fleet’s value to tourism and other industries.

Harbormaster Stuart Smith said the Coast Guard is unable to respond its boats at low tide, and while the station has a smaller-draft boat, “they don’t go near the surf with it,” he said. Because of the delay in dredging, the federal search and rescue agency cannot perform its duties, leaving two surfboats and 28 people virtually useless in certain emergencies. For Chatham and surrounding towns, “that is a serious serious matter,” Smith said. Hundreds of boats can be expected to pass through the tiny cut on any busy day next summer, most of them jostling for high tide. If one boat becomes grounded in the narrow passage, the harbor will be blocked, he said.

Fisherman John Our said the port is at risk of losing members who fish for important species like dogfish, skates, mackerel and groundfish.

“If they leave, I don’t know if they’re going to come back,” he said.

Fishermen likened the business impact of the harbor closure to losing around 100 small businesses from downtown Chatham, each employing two or three people and connecting to related shore-side industries. Fisherman Nick Muto said the town needs a backup plan.

“If all these ‘what-ifs’ fail, what are we going to do with the 100 boats that are there, and how are we going to make a living?” he asked.

The town has already conferred with counsel on the dredging problem, and regulatory agencies understand the urgency, Duncanson said. Selectmen instructed Town Manager Jill Goldsmith to include a placeholder article on the annual town meeting warrant authorizing additional dredging funds, should there be an opportunity to use them.

At Dykens’ request, the board is also investigating the possibility of purchasing and operating a dredge, either solely for Chatham or as part of a cooperative effort with adjoining towns. While having its own dredge would not free the town from the burden of permitting or legal challenges, it would eliminate the problem of waiting in a queue with other towns seeking to use the services of the county dredges.

Using preliminary estimates, Keon predicted that it would cost the town around $3.4 million to purchase a dredge and related equipment similar to that used by the county, along with up to $965,000 annually to staff and operate it. Storage of the estimated 12,000 linear feet of pipe would also be a significant challenge, he said.

Barnstable County Administrator Jack Yunits admitted that the second dredge brought online last summer had a number of problems, but said he expects them to be sorted out by the fall, when a third county dredge will be brought on line. The county is expanding its commitment to the dredging program “so that we can keep up with all these projects,” Yunits said.

Selectmen voted unanimously to have the town administrator draft a warrant article to allow a consultant to be hired to further study the possibility of a Chatham dredge, or one operated jointly with surrounding towns.

“We have interest from Dennis all the way up to Eastham,” Nicastro noted.

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