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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December 12, 2012 10:12 am

Yes Bob, remove the jetty, it’s problematic.


December 11, 2012 6:44 pm

My sail is only about 15 feet off the water, but that bridge is not about me, just an invaluable lifeline to Hatteras Island from the mainland.

Cost will be high for sure, the point I was making is that it will cost less in the long run to build the bridge from Stumpy Point to Rodanthe when compared to the high Bonner Bridge plus endless long and short bridges on Pea Island to get to Rodanthe as Pea Island will be repeatedly washed over as ocean levels continue to rise.

Sean Mulligan

December 11, 2012 3:53 pm

Hey sailor How much will a 20 mile bridge cost and it will have to have a high rise to get your sailboat under unless it’s a sunfish!!

Common Sense

December 10, 2012 11:29 am

They should just finish the jetties. It would be a one time cost that would improve the industries that use the inlet. Heck, a completed jetty would probably bring about more business etc. coming into the OBX via the Atlantic!

Capt. Joseph Moceri

December 10, 2012 11:24 am

I have worked on tugboats with dredges that have dredged out Oregon Inlet and let me say that I have never worked in a more dangerous spot on all of the Atlantic and Gulf Coasts. That said that Oregon Inlet will never maintain a natural 8 foot depth. As soon as you are done dredging a week later all that work has been filled in. It’s costly and did I say dangerous.


December 9, 2012 2:34 pm

Nags Head Bob,

Mother Nature drives ALL markets.

I wish I was an OBXer

December 9, 2012 9:28 am

First of all let me say I want the problem fixed. However, I am partial to the OBX.

This situation is a little different than fixing a road. Mother nature is an uncontrollable foe. When these problems keep happening I can see how others are hesitant to keep throwing money in. Someone needs to engineer a solution with longer lasting results.

Talking insurance to give an example. We easterners don’t want to pay the high premiums for western NC’s harsh hurricane damage. I expect this is the same way the Raleigh set feel about fixing the inlet.

nags head bob

December 8, 2012 6:49 pm

You people who want to remove the jetty need to do a little research before you speak. Not saying you are stupid or anything…..just, well, when you open your mouth and, well,……


December 8, 2012 4:07 pm

Folks face the facts nobody other than Wanchese fishermen and the Charters really give a dam about this, especially any residents of NC outside of Dare County. Hell if it were up to the tax payers in the state the RTE 12 would be closed for good by probably an 85/15 margin. It’s about time the locals here start to face the facts, the inlet and 12 are quickly approaching the end of their useful life.


December 8, 2012 3:41 pm

Time to realize that this inlet is not going to be open. Give up on the “Bonner Bridge to Nowhere” and build from Stumpy Point to Rodanthe, a low bridge that will cost much less than the high bridge over an “inlet” that is essentially closed.

And all the talk of jetties, groins, etc is pretty much a waste of time, Oregon Inlet has never been anything but a drain on the rest of the country. Better to adjust to the new realities instead of mourning what could have been if only that Federal Government that many in NC love to complain about would open up the money spigot.

Why should someone in the midwest pay to dredge this inlet? Millions in dredging costs are wiped out by a three day storm, so why even bother?


December 8, 2012 10:40 am

‘If a federal interstate was blocked for weeks on end….”
the anti big gub’ment people would want to build a toll road to take its place. Surprised they don’t want that here. Unfortunately a lot of money was squandered in Iraq and Afghanistan, on payments to oil companies and on tax cuts for the rich. Ask them to pay for dredging.


December 8, 2012 10:22 am

Raleigh needs to get off their ass and do somethng about this!! This is a crying shame.

Stuck on a Sandbar

December 8, 2012 9:57 am


December 8, 2012 9:44 am

I want fish for dinner. I want local fish, not Virginia fish or Morehead City fish.

I want Wanchese fish!


December 8, 2012 6:56 am

We need to remove the jetty at oregon inlet.


December 7, 2012 8:35 pm

They’d rather save cold stunned sea turtles in New England ,than save human life on the OBX

Matthew Byrne

December 7, 2012 3:13 pm

What is it that Dare County has done to this State and/or to the Federal Government to be treated like Sisyphus when it comes to this inlet.

There is no question that the Dollars “make the sense”…

There can’t be any Environmental Concern that has not already been addressed by the 100′s of other communities along the Eastern Seaboard that have stable inlets.

Florida alone has nineteen (19) just on the East Coast!

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