Clogged artery stifles flow of marine commerce

By on December 7, 2012

Second of two parts

To Mark Vrablic, general manager of Etheridge Seafood Co., the Oregon Inlet channel is no different than any other “road.”

He describes it as a financial artery that circulates revenue and feeds commerce throughout the region.

“If a federal interstate was blocked for weeks on end, cutting off an entire city, someone would declare a state of emergency and get the problem fixed. If this isn’t a state of emergency, I don’t know what is,” Vrablic says.

“Just last week, 30,000 pounds of fish were caught six miles off our beach. Because the inlet is closed, those fish were landed in Virginia.”

A big freezer room in the Ethridge fish house was empty late in November, and what little is shipped represents a fraction of the work the business used to handle

Hurricane Sandy, followed by two nor’easters, piled sand into the channel under the navigation span of the Bonner Bridge, making it impassible to all but the smallest boats. A U.S. Army Corps of Engineers survey this week showed depths of 4 to 6 feet.

Ocean-going trawlers need at last 8 feet.

Diverted harvests cost Dare County in more ways than one. Right now it’s flounder and croaker season and it ends soon. Vrablic’s boats can’t get out to harvest this bounty, and other boats can’t get in to sell their catch to Etheridge Seafood Co.

This time of year, Vrablic might have 30 men unloading fish from the boats, freezing and packing their catch, then loading it onto tractor trailers for destinations across the country and the globe.

A study done in July 2006 for the Oregon Inlet and Waterways Commission said seafood packing and processing at the time accounted for $33.4 million of the $682 million in annual revenue connected to the waterway

Vrablic says Wanchese harbor should have been seeing 30 or more boats offloading catch during the third week in November. He looks at the harbor.

“Look at this, it’s a ghost town,” he said.

The boats, even locally based vessels, are forced to take their catch north to Virginia or south to Moorehead City. This deprives the local fish houses of revenue and their employees of much needed work.

In addition to lost revenues and jobs, local restaurants, which proudly serve “Outer Banks Catch,” have precious little local catch to purchase and serve to customers who expect fresh seafood.

And there are two more coffin nails to consider. Commercial catch quotas are allocated by state and are assigned in part based on prior year landings. Every fish diverted to Virginia increases its landings and reduces North Carolina’s.

But the strangest, if not most ironic nail, comes from the Army Corps itself. Money to fund dredging is based on the amount of commercial tonnage passing through an inlet and into port.

The Corps doesn’t count local revenue generated by recreational or boat building in prioritizing which inlets receive the bulk of dredging funds. In the study, boat-building was shown to generate $139.8 million and recreational fishing and boating, $502.2 million.

While that does not stack up against the tonnage moving through ports like Wilimington and Hampton Roads, with the passage clogged, commercial tonnage continues to decline in Dare County and Oregon Inlet falls further down the list of economically important channels requiring attention.

The scene in Wanchese is eerily juxtaposed. Across the harbor, charter boats are tied up in their slips. On the other hand, a single commercial fishing boat is present among the many fish houses that dot the harbor. Everything is opposite of what it should be.

the Army Corps dredge Merritt was also tied up the lastweek of November after vainly trying to clear the channel. The crew is exhausted after battling the inlet nonstop over several days. Before that, they were working to keep the emergency ferry route between Rodanthe and Stumpy Point clear.

Even the Coast Guard is bottled up at their base in Oregon Inlet, unable to render aid if needed east of the bridge.

On Facebook and other social media, the recreational guys are now calling for action.

Vrablic gets a bad feeling from all of this. The water is so shallow, the Coast Guard couldn’t get to buoys pushed out of position by the northeast winds to move them back to the channel they are supposed to mark.

“It’s like everyone is just throwing in the towel” Vrablic says, shaking his head in a combination of exasperation and resignation.

Inside, Vrablic’s fish house is empty. Outside, the large trucks are idle, their trailers not full of inventory but cobwebs. Stacks of unused palettes litter the parking lot.

Commercial and recreational fishermen have been tangling with one another for over a decade. The two groups share the same resource, the fisheries, and federal government assigns the total catch allowed for many species.

Increasing the allowance for one group’s total catch means a reduction in catch for the other side.

These days, recreational anglers far outnumber commercial fishermen and have far more money at their disposal because every entity from boat dealers to bait and tackle shops support their lobbying efforts.

But Vrablic is a big-picture person. He thinks like a local businessmen and sees all mariners and even non-mariners as having a dog in the fight to stabilize the inlet.

“It’s to the point even the smaller charters are being denied. And Manteo should be full of sailboats and larger yachts stopping here for a day or two,” he said. “They don’t come because the word is out that the inlet is unreliable.

“There used to be something like 26 boat builders here. It’s not just the economy that is a problem. Our boats are known all over the world, but if they can’t get out of here, the builders will go elsewhere.”

To Vrablic, watching charter boats move away in winter costs everyone money: restaurants, stores and other places their clients patronize. He feels the same way about sailboats and yachts and the boat-building industry.

All of it, including commercial fishing, creates revenues, supports job creation and spreads dollars far beyond the docks and boat slips.

Vrablic thinks it is far beyond the time for everyone to raise their voices.

And what about the bad blood between the recreational and commercial fishermen?

“We need to get the inlet issue resolved permanently,” he said. “We can argue about the other things later, but if this inlet closes for good, there won’t be anything for either side to argue about.”

Sam Walker contributed to this story.

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