Even before the mammoth northeast storm on Dec. 26 and 27 pushed sand into the mouth of Montauk Harbor, the bottoms of commercial fishing boats were hitting the shoal in the inlet. Their captains say the shoal has grown more dangerous because of this winter’s string of northeasters.
Jason Walters, the senior chief Coast Guard officer who is the commander of Montauk’s search and rescue station, has advised captains to file an incident report whenever they run afoul of the shoal.
While fishermen say they’ve learned to live with it, planning their comings and goings around the tides and then crossing their fingers, inconvenience can turn to disaster quickly during a storm.
An Army Corps of Engineers study, the navigation and storm damage reduction project, first authorized in 1991, remains incomplete. The next thorough dredging is not scheduled until 2013.
Two weeks ago, the dragger Perception was forced to wait for seven hours outside the harbor for a tide that was full enough to allow it to enter. Dan Farnham, owner of the tilefish longliner Kimberly, reported that Capt. David Tuma had hit bottom on the way back from an offshore trip last week. “He was two and a half hours off of low tide, but tapped the bottom anyway.”
Shoaling in Montauk Harbor Inlet has become a chronic problem. In 1999, and again the following year, the shoal, which forms along the east side, grounded the draggers First Light and Jason and Danielle. The First Light, a wooden boat out of Shinnecock, was destroyed. The Jason and Danielle narrowly escaped capsizing in a cold and driving January storm and went to a Massachusetts shipyard for repairs.
A month later, the inlet got its first major dredging in years. Approximately 48,000 cubic yards of sand were pumped from the channel and deposited along the beach at Soundview, a residential area to the west of the inlet. The job cost $700,000 and included a “deposition basin,” a deep hole north of the east jetty, to slow the east-to-west drift of sand that enters the inlet and creates the shoal.
The inlet wasn’t dredged again until 2004, but the job was roundly criticized as insufficient. The shoal was back and causing problems three years later. Commercial fishermen from Montauk’s Inlet Seafood company, the largest wholesale shipper of fish in New York State, met with an Army Corps representative that year only to learn that money for maintenance dredging had not been allocated in the 2008 federal budget. In 2009, 4,296 cubic yards of sand were removed, but the shoal came back bigger than ever.
“God forbid the Viking [recreational party boat] capsizes,” said Capt. Chuck Weimar, who owns the Rianda S dragger. “Everybody, everybody is hitting bottom. We’ve all done it. It’s like threading a needle. If a boat from another port comes to Montauk on a transient trip, it’s dangerous.”
Montauk fishermen have expressed confidence that Mr. Walters, who visited the Kimberly when she last hit bottom, understands the situation. “We ask for incident reports because it gives us a history of a vessel, so even if they do have a casualty, it shows there has been no negligence. We’re continuing to monitor, but with all the erosion, things can change within one storm,” he said.
Mr. Walters said that updates on the state of the inlet were broadcast weekly on radio frequencies monitored by boaters and were posted in the Coast Guard’s Notice to Mariners. In addition, Mr. Walters said he continued to send information up the chain of command to district headquarters in Boston. Ultimately, however, it will be the Army Corps’ responsibility, he said.
At an East Hampton Town Board meeting on Tuesday, Supervisor Bill Wilkinson reported that he had written to Senator Charles E. Schumer, asking him to expedite a meeting with the Corps of Engineers. “I don’t believe we can wait till 2013 to dredge the harbor,” he said.
The cause of the shoal seems obvious to fishermen and the residents of the Soundview community, where houses had severe damage in December. They agree the problem is the inlet’s east jetty, which blocks the natural, east-to-west, flow of sand. The sand builds up on the Gin Beach, or east, side of the inlet, while starving the beach to the west. This is apparently made worse by the natural scouring action of currents that course around any hard structure. As a result, “green water” waves have destroyed bulkheads and undermined houses at Soundview.
“We draw 10 feet when loaded,” Captain Farnham said of the Kimberly. “The larger draggers, 12 or 13. You can lose a boat easily . . . in a storm, if the wind picks up while we’re waiting, there can be trouble.”
“They dredge, then we have to get used to the shoal again. We need some kind of sand-bypass system that pumps sand around,” removing the glut of sand on east side to reduce its flow into the harbor, while at the same time feeding the beaches on the Soundview side. “It’s what you have to do when you have a port,” Captain Farnham said.