Shoaling near Hatteras blocks boats from getting to the ocean, threatening tourism dollars from Outer Banks

30 March 2022

— Sand buildup below the water’s surface is blocking boats from accessing the Atlantic Ocean in the Outer Banks community of Hatteras Island — trapping more than 60 captains inside their marinas.

Boat owners said they’ve already had to cancel dozens of charter fishing trips due to the shoaling, and the entire community stands to lose millions of dollars in tourism business if help doesn’t come soon.

While it’s an impressive sight to see rows of towering charter boats standing tall in the Hatteras Harbor Marina on the Pamlico Sound, the boats’ owners say shouldn’t be here.

“Hatteras Inlet is great,” said Dare County Waterways Commission Chairman Steve Coulter said. “It’s just the channel to Hatteras Inlet that is the problem.”

Coulter said that the area providing boats access to the ocean has suffered for years from shoaling, which is when sand erodes and moves around due to the ocean’s current. The sand piles up and makes the water too shallow to sail through, and in this case, it’s blocking access from Hatteras to the inlet — sealing the boats off completely from the Atlantic Ocean.

“You’ve got five, six, 10 roads where you live where you can get to your job or you can get to your house,” Coulter said. “We have one.”

“One road, one channel,” he continued. “We need it. That’s why we’re here.”

Homes in Rodanthe

At just two feet deep in some places, Coulter said the water around the inlet has never been this shallow before and their peak season is about to begin. He said boats have already had to cancel up to 100 trips in the month of March alone, and that number is expected to “double or triple” in April as seasonal tourism increases.

If the ocean stays inaccessible into their peak months starting in May, Coulter said the 60+ boats on Hatteras could start losing over $130,000 a day altogether.

“That’s just for the fishing trip. That’s not for the house, that’s not for the hotel, that’s not for dinner, that’s not for gifts, that’s not for fuel driving up and down the road,” Coulter said. “Hundreds of thousands of dollars, all the time.”

Finding the solution is a little more complicated.The immediate area around the inlet is maintained by Dare County and the state Department of Transportation, which use their funds to dredge out sand and keep the ferry running to Ocracoke.

Coulter said that ferry from Hatteras provides 75 percent of the daily tourism traffic to Ocracoke, and while the ferry’s course is still traversable, a shutdown due to shoaling would deal a severe hit to Ocracoke’s economy as well.

Close by is a federal water channel maintained by the US Army Corps of Engineers out of Wilmington. But because the current trouble area around the inlet is state-owned, not federal, the USACE can’t use federal funds to dredge it.

Outer Banks ferry

Currently, the county and state have an agreement where they’ll give their funds to USACE to help dredge around the Hatteras Inlet, but it’s not the federal entity’s responsibility to clear the sand away.

USACE is now pushing to make the horseshoe path of the ferry part of the federal channel, which would allow them to use their resources to help clear the way to the ocean. But it won’t be an instant fix since all USACE work on the channel area will have to go through an approval and funding allocation process, and the equipment they use for dredging is sent to work on projects from Maine all the way down to Texas.

“Having that route be part of the federal channel will make it easier in terms of giving us authority to do work and do maintenance dredging in that corridor which is being used by the mariners,” USACE Shallow Draft Program Manager Brennan Dooley said. “However, it doesn’t guarantee funding and it doesn’t take away all these other competing priorities that we have out there.”

A spokesperson for the USACE Wilmington said the area around the Hatteras Inlet could be integrated into the federal channel by as soon as mid-April.

But the fishermen in Hatteras say they’re losing money with every passing day, and some have started to consider selling their boats and quitting the industry if the shoaling situation doesn’t improve quickly.

“We don’t have two or three months,” Coulter said. “The economy of this village and this island doesn’t have two or three months.”

This post was originally published on this site

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