Cycle of shoaling creates danger, financial losses

By on December 2, 2012

Many commercial boats have left Wanchese for safer harbors. Those that remain cannot get in or out. (The Voice)

First of two parts

Unlike schools, commercial fishermen and fish houses cannot make up their lost days. And there have been plenty of them over the past two years.

For the second Thanksgiving season in a row, Oregon Inlet has been impassible for the larger boats that depend on late fall and winter fishing to stay in business.

Just how treacherous the channel has become was clear during a recent trip to the inlet with Mark Vrablic, general manager of Etheridge Seafood, and Capt. Tommy Danchise of the commercial trawl boat Landon Blake.

On the way out, Danchise described how over the past several years, the inlet has shoaled up during the late fall.

The federal government is charged with maintaining a channel depth of at 12 to 14 feet on the approach from the ocean to the Oregon Inlet bridge. It was an alternative plan provided after the government decided not to build a jetty on the north side and extend the groin on the south.

But a shrinking federal budget has put shallow-draft inlets like Oregon on the sidelines as efforts and money are directed toward high-tonnage players like the Wilmington harbor.

Sam Walker explains the recent shoaling and the movement of channel buoys at Oregon Inlet.

A large shoal encroaches into the channel under the bridge. From there the channel doglegs to the south and allows boats to safely traverse the bar at the surf line and head for the open waters of the Atlantic.

As we pass under the bridge, the depth finder shows 7.5 feet. And this is at flood tide, aided by a strong northeast wind that Danchise estimates is adding a foot of water to the channel.

Recent U.S. Army Corps of Engineers surveys show the channel averaging as little as 4 feet in some spots.

Danchise is well known to many commercial and pleasure-craft boaters. He has aided several dozen boats through the hazardous channel over the years — “rescue” missions that are becoming more common.

Even in the best of times, Oregon Inlet can be tough for experienced captains to navigate in the fall and winter.

Large swells form on the bar and roll into the narrow channel. Tidal currents are swift. Captains must keep one eye on the rollers, which can sneak up from behind on the return trip, a second eye on the channel markers and the depth finder.

If a boat runs hard aground, Vrablic says, it only takes one “Hawaii 5-0 wave” to overturn or break apart a stranded vessel.

On this late November day, not only had Hurricane Sandy and subsequent nor’easters filled the channel with sand, they had uprooted essential navigation buoys east of the bridge.

The large buoys were scattered like toys among the pilings of the Bonner bridge and even to the west of the span, far into Pamlico Sound.

Once we pass under the bridge there are no channel markers in sight. About a half-mile out we spot a green navigation aid barely visible as it and the Landon Blake bob in the deep swells.

The buoy is a mile and half east of the bridge and nowhere near the channel it is supposed to mark. The next closest buoy is a red marker, floating almost 2 miles east of the bridge.

Early last week, the corps was working on digging out the channel enough to allow the Coast Guard’s 55-foot buoy tender to get out and re-mark the channel. But the busy crew of the Merritt needed a break, and the side-cast dredge was docked in Wanchese by mid-week.

Fixes are temporary in the dynamic channel anyway. Danchise and Vrablic fear a fatal accident is waiting to happen. A shallow channel and an absence of navigation aids has meant only the most experienced captains can navigate it safely, and then, only in daylight.

Boaters lacking experience with the inlet and commercial fishing boats who leave before sunrise and return after sunset have been navigating the inlet blind.

Vrablic notes that Oregon Inlet is the only “safe harbor” for troubled boats north of Hatteras Inlet and south of Rudee Inlet or Chesapeake Bay in Virginia.

As if to emphasize the point, Vrablic called a few days later and sent a picture of a luxury yacht that had made it over “the bar” in broad daylight and was unable to get through the navigation spans under the bridge due to shallow water and the lack of channel markers.

A gill-net boat came out and guided the yacht to safety.

Vrablic wonders what this boat owner will tell his friends about Oregon Inlet, emphasizing the inlet is no longer an issue for just commercial fishing vessels that draw 8 or more feet of water.

“It’s now affecting the charter fleet, yachts, and other industries. Sailboats should be stopping in Manteo, but the inlet is so unreliable, few make the trip. The charter boats should be out now chasing tuna. Rockfish season is coming,” Vrablic said.

“And how does that affect our boat building industry? How do you sell a boat you can’t deliver or take out to sea for trials? There used to be over 20 boat builders here and if they don’t fix this inlet, there won’t be any.”

It isn’t just Wanchese that relies on the inlet. Stumpy Point and Englehard commercial fishermen and fish houses also need it open.

Next: The financial impact of the inlet’s problems on the traditional commercial fishing industry.

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December 10, 2012 9:53 am

nags head bob

December 9, 2012 3:58 pm

Jim who?


December 7, 2012 9:25 pm

Nags Head Bob,

Sorry your boy Jim quit today.


December 7, 2012 1:18 pm

Dare County received $149 million in total revenue in 2010 and spent $147 million.

So where is all this “surplus tax money” that is sent to the NC government? How much Federal Tax Money is sent from NC to DC? Wait!- NC is one of those states that receives more money than it sends to DC- $1.08 of Federal money is sent to NC for every $1.00 they send the other way.

Small chance that any “local” funding is going to be able to even service the debt on building a $500 million bridge from Stumpy Pt to Rodanthe.

Nags Head Bob: perhaps chaz means what he says, there is no “Free Market”, certainly not in the USA, where GE earns billions each year and pays nothing in taxes while taking in millions from the government in subsidies, free use of the roads we all built, etc.

The mythical “Free Market” exists, but is not pretty, go to Somalia and enjoy the free market and no government interference- how’s that working out for anyone there?

Stuck on a Sandbar

December 7, 2012 1:03 pm

Nags head bob

December 7, 2012 7:06 am

Chaz, let me guess. You’re an employee. Never owned a business. Right. There are many things around you that effect your everyday life, but if you can’t see them you call them fairytails. Complicated concepts are unfair to people like you.


December 6, 2012 9:13 pm

Nags Head Bob,

The “Free Market” you speak of is a fairy tale.

Sean Mulligan

December 6, 2012 4:44 pm

This county generates a lot of revenue that goes directly to the state because of the huge influx of tourist spending .Why would anyone think that the local area should not be able to use at least some of these funds for worthwhile projects.If the seashore wasn’t a national park I wouldn’t think about trying to get them to provide some funding. If you do not think dredging or beach nourishment are worthwhile thats fine but we should get money from the state for other worthwhile projects.Why should we subsidize the state coffers.One other note federal funding does not make the government larger but would add the the debt.

Nags Head Local

December 6, 2012 11:59 am

I agree with Sailor. If the ferry’s and inlets are worthwhile to our local economy then we need to pay for them ourselves through tolls or taxes. I don’t believe we should rely on the federal and state government’s for assistance in local matters. I’m sure that the people on here that are lobbying so hard for Federal assistance are the same ones advocating for “less federal government spending”. I believe it’s wrong and immoral for everyone to not want their federal “goodies” cut but have everyone elses cut across the nation.

Sean Mulligan

December 6, 2012 6:47 am

There is no magic bullet. Dredging will always be required in the Oregon Inlet area although maybe less if a groin is put on the North side of the inlet. The county provides a huge amount of revenue to the state through the sales tax.Is this enough to make it worth there while to continue funding the dredging required to keep Oregon Inlet open as well as have a continuing beach nourishment program. The federal government has a stake in this area because it is a National Park to be accessed and enjoyed by all.One other note It would be interesting if someone did a model of what would have been the effect on the Outer Banks had Sandy turned and came ashore here.

Stewie Stewington

December 5, 2012 9:41 pm

Pedro – The Gold Coast Seaway is an interesting project but it is much more than just a couple of groynes/groins.

It is also a large pumping system that operates almost daily to pump sand out of the channel.

I have no idea what the annual operation and maintenance costs of that pumping system are but my guess is that it is not an inexpensive system.

Also, if you look at the population/tax base/wealth of the Gold Coast/Brisbane area it is pretty easy to see that they can afford to spend the money necessary build/operate the Gold Coast Seaway.

A similar approach to deal with Oregon Inlet would almost certainly involve great efforts to try and get the federal government to provide most of the funding for such a project.

While pork barrel projects are not a complete relic of “the good old days” fiscal reality at the federal level is likely going to put a crimp in traditional Congressional efforts to bring home the bacon. Or not – no doubt the federal budget has and always will have billions of dollars of spending for purely local projects.

As this is a local problem it’s going to require a local solution.


December 5, 2012 8:15 pm

Oregon inlet should be left to nature, build the new bridge from Stumpy Pt to Rodanthe and it will not need to be more than 20 feet above the water level.

Why waste more money dredging this channel at the cost of $10 million per year for a return of less than $5 million per year in local economic benefit?

Total waste of money, none of the local millionaires or fisherman want to pay for dredging, so let the channel shoal over.

business in mto waterfront

December 5, 2012 5:40 pm

jetty the inlet

Nags head bob

December 5, 2012 7:37 am

Note to junkhead. The free market pays for everything.


December 4, 2012 5:17 pm

Not an expert by any means, but would a couple of groynes do the trick. They use them a lot back home in Australia. If you do a Google image search for “Gold Coast Seaway” you’ll see how that is set-up. I know you have to be careful with groyne’s as they can lead to erosion on one side if it’s not done right. But the GC Seaway was very dangerous prior to the rock walls.


December 4, 2012 5:02 pm

To all the “free market” types out there…..what’s the free market going to do about this ?


December 4, 2012 9:32 am

Why should midwest and other non-Carolina taxpayers pay to dredge this inlet? That’s what the locals asking for Federal money are after. Let the local “self reliant” types put up the money to dredge the inlet. If it is not worth it, then move somewhere else where there is a natural deep harbor.

Oregon Inlet dredging is a huge waste of Federal Tax money, almost as bad as the “Bridge to Nowhere” in Alaska.


December 4, 2012 8:47 am

The shoaling of both hatteras and oregon inlet have put immense pressure on hatteras island. Have you noticed the constant high tides? Thats because the water cannot flow out into the ocean. Dredge baby dredge


December 4, 2012 6:55 am

Can we please remove the jetty now, it causes erosion and upsets flow which also causes shoaling.
A hardened structure built in a dynamic area doesn’t work as we have found out over and over.

nags head bob

December 4, 2012 6:42 am

George lives on the SW end of Big Colington Island. There are oak tree stumps hundreds of feet offshore there. Been like like that for a very long time. We only see a snapshot in time and our memories are even shorter. Like building a house in a hole, building on the sound facing southwest can come back to bite you. I suggest he expand his anti-balloon campaign to cover SW wind.


December 3, 2012 7:42 pm

How looooonnnnngggg have we been DREDGING this inlet!! Put a jetty on the other side & its over. @ MR Mendelson the water seems higher because of GLOBAL WARMING!! hehehehehhahah


December 3, 2012 6:07 pm

Hatteras inlet is also having issues.

Stewie Stewington

December 3, 2012 3:15 pm

Local problems require local solutions. If the inlet is such a valuable part of the areas economy then let the local and state taxpayers find and fund a solution.

There is no compelling reason that any significant percentage of whatever those solutions may cost should be paid for via federal funds. Funds which really don’t exist anyway.

Rob Morris

December 3, 2012 10:51 am

The video is fixed. Sorry for the trouble.

Duke Geraghty

December 3, 2012 9:31 am

Build the jetty, build it now. Oregon Inlet is vital to Dare County economy. Good story Russ.

Sandy Semans

December 3, 2012 8:49 am

Kudos on this first part of your two-part story! It’s good to see someone report the wide impact this has beyond fishing – both rec and commercial. And it is important for folks to understand that the financial impact is much wider than Roanoke Island businesses. When the channel is this shallow, Stumpy Point and Hyde County fishermen who fish in the ocean have to spend much more for fuel and boat provisions when they are forced to go out of Hatteras Inlet. Again, good job Russ and Sam at taking a sometimes complicated situation and making it understandable.


December 3, 2012 8:40 am

The video won’t play – says “this video is private” and “an error occured try again later”…


December 3, 2012 8:25 am

When I click to watch the video I get “This video is private” ???


December 3, 2012 7:01 am

“But the busy crew of the Merritt needed a break, and the side-cast dredge was docked in Wanchese by mid-week.”
That part of your story is incorrect. The Merritt only has one crew and they only work Tues-Tues. the Corp reduced its crews a while back thus, the dredges only work half of the time.
There are I let’s up and down the mid Atlantic that aren’t being maintained, OI is vital because of the safety issue. Rudee isn’t really an option for most commercial boats.

George Mendelson

December 3, 2012 2:11 am

I’d like to start a discussion of an aspect of the shoaling of Oregon Inlet that has not received any public attention although the impacts, economic and otherwise, may well be much greater than those to the fishing and boating industries. As many people are aware, Oregon Inlet is not an inlet at all but an outlet to the ocean for sound water and river water. As Oregon Inlet shoals over it acts like a stopper in a gigantic bath tub.
Over the last ten years as shoaling problems have increased I have noticed a significant rise in the water level on the shore of Albemarle Sound – perhaps as much as two to three feet on average. That rise has impacted all soundside property owners especially during storm overwash, most recently during Irene and Sandy. As everyone knows, the flood losses of property owners in Manteo, Colington Harbor and many other communities were massive. When consideration is given to cost benefit analysis of dredging of Oregon Inlet I would hope that the flooding costs – past and future – are included.
I would suggest that the Corps of Engineers might study the water level rise in the sounds as part of its analysis of the effects of Oregon Inlet shoaling and the need to keep that outlet clear.

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