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This is from the Va. Pilot

Coast Guard plans to ban large vessels from Oregon Inlet
Posted to: Business Environment News North Carolina

The buildup of sand around the Bonner Bridge has increased exponentially, making navigation of the Oregon Inlet dangerous for trawlers and other vessels. The Army Corps of Engineers dredges it frequently, trying to keep the channel clear. funding issue President Barack Obama’s proposed budget sets aside $1 million for Oregon Inlet dredging next year, a reduction from recent funding levels and far from the $10 million to $20 million that studies have shown is needed.

economic impact
An extended closure of Oregon Inlet could seriously affect the Outer Banks’ fishing and boating industries, which were estimated in a 2006 Dare County report to annually produce more than $682 million and support 9,851 jobs.


OREGON INLET, N.C.

IN THE LATEST BLOW to the struggling Dare County commercial fishing industry, large fishing vessels may soon be banned from using Oregon Inlet because of the buildup of sand in the channel.

The Coast Guard plans to impose weight and size restrictions on vessels that traverse the waterway, which provides access for fishing boats to the Atlantic Ocean.

The regulation, which is still in draft form, would make it illegal for vessels of more than 100 gross tons or 80 feet in length to navigate the channel, said Coast Guard Capt. Anthony Popiel, who is recommending the rule as commander of the North Carolina Sector in District 5.

The regulation could go into effect as early as this week, though the timetable will be determined by the District 5 commander.

News of the pending regulation is a setback for the $40 million industry and the Dare County watermen whose livelihoods depend on traversing the inlet to reach the ocean. The waterway's deteriorating condition for weeks has served as its own "Do Not Enter" sign to trawlers based in Wanchese, the commercial fishing hub on Roanoke Island.

"Some of us are not going to be able to survive financially," said Willie Etheridge, who estimated that his seafood packing and distribution company has lost millions of dollars in just the past few weeks.

Wanchese Seafood Co. co-owner Mikey Daniels said the federal regulation would essentially ban his entire fishing fleet from Oregon Inlet, though he's already rerouted most of his boats north to ports in Hampton Roads because it's become too dangerous for large vessels to navigate the channel.

To access the ocean through Oregon Inlet, fishing vessels must pass under the Bonner Bridge. But the bridge's support system is designed to accommodate boat traffic in only one area - the same place where Bodie Island Spit seems determined to migrate.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is spending $13,000 a day to dredge the channel, but it's a losing battle. A survey conducted Monday showed water depths are as shallow as 6 feet around the bridge. Most trawlers - large commercial fishing boats - cannot travel in depths of less than 9 feet without running aground, Daniels said.

Conditions in the inlet have gotten so bad, Popiel said, that he is concerned about boats running aground and striking the 48-year-old bridge. There have been a few incidents in recent weeks, though no significant damage has been reported.

Popiel said large boats "are the ones that would have the potential to put the car traffic at risk."

He said he also hopes the regulation triggers increased caution among the crews of smaller boats. Further restrictions are possible, he said, if conditions continue to worsen.

Economically, the situation at Oregon Inlet has already reached a crisis level. Commercial watermen say fuel prices make it cost-prohibitive to continue docking and selling their catch at ports in Hampton Roads to the north or Morehead City, N.C., to the south. Several of the Wanchese business owners said they see layoffs on the horizon.

"I don't know if I can make it work," said Billy Carl Tillett, whose family's commercial fishing business depends on Oregon Inlet. "We're going to have to try, I guess."

A 2006 county-funded study set the value of commercial interests dependent on the inlet at more than $682 million; the commercial fishing and seafood packing industries generate about $40 million of that amount. The report put the number of jobs at 9,851.

The vast majority of that $682 million figure comes from the recreational fishing sector that caters to tourists who pay charter-boat captains for fishing trips.

The inlet's treacherous conditions have begun to hit the recreational sector, said Robin Mann, who serves as chairwoman of the Outer Banks Chamber of Commerce Board of Directors and as a member of the county's Oregon Inlet and Waterways Commission.

The largest charter boats draw more than 6 feet, Mann said, and some captains are considering relocating their businesses to other marinas before the tourist season kicks off.

"We're gearing up, and they're starting to wonder if they're going to have an inlet come June/July," she said.

Mann said she also expects local restaurants and seafood markets to see the trickle-down effect soon - if they haven't already - from the hit to commercial fishing.

For weeks, Mann said, she's been on the phone nonstop with elected officials at the state and federal levels about the crisis.

"They know what's going on. They just can't do much about it right now," she said. "They're having difficulty finding funding."

President Barack Obama's proposed budget would slash funding for Oregon Inlet dredging from $4 million this year to $1 million next year, a figure far short of what officials say is needed to keep the inlet open and safe.

Daniels, of Wanchese Seafood Co., said he is alarmed at the absence of answers from elected officials on what can be done.

"It makes you wonder: Doesn't anybody care?" he said.

County officials seem just as frustrated. At a meeting Monday, several commissioners expressed a sense of desperation.

"It's getting worse every day, and there's less hope every day," Commissioner Mike Johnson said. "I don't know if now is not the time to cry states' rights or whatever we need to do."

The board's chairman, Warren Judge, said the county is "exhausting everything possible."

Daniels said he is praying for a miracle.

"You've gotta have some faith," he said. "I believe something's going to happen. I don't know what it is."
 
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