Inlets of frustration
Keeping the gateways to the Atlantic navigable

By Charlie Hall
Sun Journal Staff

Navigable waters are as important for North Carolina's $94 million commercial fishing trade as good highways are for commercial carriers on land.

Because of the state's unique system of sounds, barrier islands and inlets, safe passage to the ocean has always been a problem. Natural shoaling fills the channels with sand; and the only relief comes through dredging.

Hurricanes such as Isabel only compound the problem.

Oregon Inlet, the primary link to and from the Atlantic Ocean for fishermen in counties such as Dare, Hyde and Pamlico became so dangerous following the September hurricane that many Pamlico County boats took an alternative route through Beaufort Inlet -- adding eight-to-nine hours and extra fuel expense to their trips.

"It's not so much the cost involved in the fuel," said Doug Cross of Pamlico Packing Co. in Vandemere. "What kind of cost can you put on human life? I think budget concerns have completely ignored these inlets."

During a two-week period in late November, no less than eight commercial and recreational vessels ran aground in an area of the inlet known as Hell's Gate.

The "Darrow and Jordan," an ocean-going trawler based out of Oriental, was one of those ships. It remained immobile for a day until the shifting winds and tides finally allowed it to back off into deeper water.

"We're just scared to do it," said Garland Fulcher Seafood owner Sherrill Styron of boats using Oregon Inlet. "You just can't take the chance."

The latest Oregon Inlet situation came at a bad time for fishermen, who were making their way north to work the remainder of the summer flounder quota.

Summer flounder was a $6 million fishery for North Carolina in 2002.

All commercial boats must have a Commercial Fishing Vessel license from the state Division of Marine Fisheries. Those boats can range from skiffs to trawlers. There were 425 such licenses last year for Pamlico County boats, with 359 this year, five months into the current license cycle.

Flounder fishing requires a separate license. There were 31 Pamlico County boats authorized through the end of November.

The dangerous waters, coupled with bad weather, forced the state Division of Marine Fisheries to allow emergency flounder landings in Virginia.

"If they are packing in Virginia, guess where it (money) is going," said Jerry Schill, president of North Carolina Fisheries Association, a commercial fishing trade group. "It's not only treacherous for our boys, but it is also an economic drain."

Assistance from state Rep. Walter Jones and Sen. Elizabeth Dole got the normal Army Corps of Engineers' dredging scheduled moved ahead. It's a $2.9 million project that will continue until mid April.

The inlets situation is ongoing, and seafood dealers such as Cross said it continues to take its toll on the industry.

"We've got to run into different ports and pack them and then truck them down here," he said. "We've got to pay other people to pack our fish. How ridiculous is that?

"I haven't packed enough fish in the last four years during flounder season to even warrant washing down the floor," he added, "because we can't get the boats back here."

Longtime concern

Making Oregon Inlet safe for deep-draft vessels has been a controversial issue for three decades, since Congress authorized a jetty project in 1970 -- in which the Corps was to dredge a 20-foot by 400-foot navigation channel and construct two large jetties to divert sands from the channel.

Numerous economic, engineering and environmental studies followed over the years -- analyzing impacts such as native fishery habitat, and national park and wildlife refuge lands.

In May, the project was laid to rest by mutual agreement by the White House Council on Environmental Quality, the Corps and Commerce Department.

In making the announcement, the CEQ made promises of keeping the inlet viable -- a promise that members of the commercial fishing community complain has not been kept.

"They assured North Carolina that instead of spending the money on the jetties, they were going to make sure that the Outer Banks had safe and adequate access -- specifically Oregon Inlet," said Schill. "The CEQ is an administrative issue. It was the Bush administration that put the final nail in the coffin. They are the ones that made the promises for safe inlets and they are the ones who have got to deliver. Period."

All sides agree the jetty project would not have been a total fix. The initial $108 million cost would have been followed by annual dredging costs of $6.1 million, according to the CEQ in May.

"When they didn't fund the inlet jetty project, they made a commitment to keep the inlets open, including the (Atlantic) Intracoastal Waterway," said Cross. "And they haven't done it."

That sentiment was also echoed by Rep. Jones when he announced the expediting of the latest dredging at Oregon Inlet.

"Eight vessels running aground in two weeks shows that so far, their commitment is worthless," he said.

"CEQ needs to recognize that fishing and boating brings tens of millions of dollars to the Outer Banks' economy every year. That revenue will quickly evaporate unless CEQ devotes the resources necessary to ensure that folks aren't risking their lives and property every time they go through that inlet

"I and others from the North Carolina delegation have stressed this point repeatedly and will continue to do so until CEQ takes appropriate action."

Attempts to reach CEQ officials about future plans were unsuccessful.

Lack of funding

The Army Corps of Engineers is responsible for North Carolina's federal navigation channels, including nine major inlets and 308 miles of Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway.

But money for operations and maintenance dredging is hard to come by, according to the Corps.

The Wilmington District office issued a notice Dec. 17, closing a section of the Intracoastal Waterway near Lockood Folly Inlet to boats with a draft of more than three feet. A lack of funding for normal dredge work was cited.

"We have funding for hydrographic surveying for the year along the Intracoastal Waterway, but we have no more funding for dredging," said Bob Sattin, Wilmington District Chief of Navigation, in a statement. "The irony is we can tell you where the shoals are, but we can't do anything about them."

Funding for the waterway is based on the amount of commercial barge traffic, according to Penny Schmitt, the Wilmington office chief of public affairs. Fishermen and recreational traffic are not counted by Congress when deciding funding.

"For the past two years, we have had 25 percent or less of the funding required to keep the waterway maintained," she said. "As you can imagine, that means we are constantly juggling what funds we do have to address the worst-hurt first.

"The last two years, the president's budget has gone forward with no money for dredging in it. So, any money for dredging has been added by Congress."

Oregon Inlet is included in that pot of money, she said.

Alternative solution

With federal dollars and promises in short supply, Cross offered an idea that has been discussed before -- a state-owned-and-operated dredge.

"I think it is something the state is going to have to address," he said. "We need a 36-inch state dredge. We don't need to rely on companies coming down here to keep them (inlets) open. And, we don't need a Mickey Mouse one. We need a big one, so we can keep these inlets open and we can go back to fishing the way we are supposed to.

"It's the only way this problem is ever going to be solved."

Cross said a state dredge could attend to the needs of all the inlets, including Ocracoke, which would provide access to the ocean for Pamlico County boats.

"This (Oregon Inlet) situation just further illustrates the need to keep the Ocracoke Inlet maintained as well," he said. "That would give us two options. They say Beaufort is always open. Sure it is, but you've got to run all the way around China to get there."

He said the majority of Pamlico and Hyde county trawlers used Ocracoke as the primary ocean connector until this past decade.

"Ocracoke is as important as Oregon," he said.

The Corps of Engineers Wilmington District owns and operates three minimum fleet dredges that work in shallow draft projects.

But mostly, the Corps contracts the work out among about 25 private dredging companies.

Jerry Gaskill, head of the state Ferry Division, said he had been asked for an opinion on a state dredge in the past.

"I'm not advocating it, but other people have talked about it, and I think it would pay for itself," he said. "I think it would be cost-effective."

The ferry division owns a dredge with a 12-inch pipe, used for work around its 13 facilities at seven sites along the Outer Banks. Gaskill said it would be cost prohibitive for the Ferry Division to hire outside contractors.

As for building a state dredge, he said a 30-inch pipeline dredge, with booster pumps, piping and other equipment would likely cost between $5 million and $7 million.

He noted that a hunk of any contractor's cost is the mobilization fee for crews and equipment -- the dredge boat, tug boats, tender boats and fuel barges -- which must be brought to the N.C. coast by land and by water.

During the past five years, the ferry dredge operation has been maintained at an average of less than $2.75 per cubic yard of sand removed. That includes personnel, equipment and fuel. It is far less than most commercial costs.

"I'm certain that if the state of North Carolina had something like that, they could certainly make it cost effective," he said.

According to Corps of Engineers' figures, dredging projects at Oregon Inlet have cost $28 million since 1999; and $27.6 million for the Altantic Intracoastal Waterway.