By Doreen Leggett
Leverman Corey Fleming was running controls on the Cod Fish II, and after he carved out each linear section he stuck his arm out the window and pointed. That was crew member Zach Tivey’s cue to maneuver his skiff and shift forward one of the 250-pound anchors so the dredge could move up to clear the next section of channel.
“Crabbing ahead. It’s very meticulous,” said Ken Cirillo, the administrator of Barnstable County’s dredging program, standing on the gleaming white and blue dredge on a warm October day.
Out of sight, on the other side of Popponesset’s barrier beach, dredge superintendent Jason Bevis was working at the tail end of a dredge pipe more than a mile long. Sand slurry was coursing through, creating a growing mound to spread on the eroding beach.
The dredge crew knows the area well. They open up the channel in Mashpee virtually every year so boats can get to Nantucket Sound on almost all tides.
It wasn’t always that way.
“There is a reason they call it ‘Half-Tide Marina,’” Bevis said smiling, referring to a business inside the harbor that has been around for almost 50 years.
The dredge was clearing out what is known as the 1916 channel, while its counterpart, Sand Shifter, worked in Chatham. Chatham’s harbors are constantly shoaling in, which makes dredging essential there as well.
“Chatham’s fishing fleet is an integral component to the town’s economy and to the entire state, it is third in Massachusetts in terms of catch and dollar value,” said Ted Keon, Chatham’s coastal resources director. “Supporting dredging projects has significant economic return. We are a maritime community and access for mariners is critical.”
The county dredge program just celebrated its 25th anniversary with a milestone of removing almost 2.4 million cubic yards of material during more than 300 projects. Ninety-five percent of the dredged material went to rebuilding beaches around the peninsula.
Last year was the most successful, with close to 150,000 cubic yards removed from projects in Barnstable, Yarmouth, Falmouth, Bourne, Provincetown, Truro, Dennis, Mashpee, Chatham and Harwich.
“Me and the guys are celebrating,” said Bevis at an early summer meeting at the county complex in Barnstable.
Bevis and his crew had been working with two and a half dredges. The larger dredge, the Sand Shifter, had been plagued with breakdowns until last year. The newest dredge, the Codfish II, was purchased in 2019 for $1.25 million. The original Codfish makes up the remaining half as it has been enlisted as a booster to get dredged sand to beaches farther away.
The program has come back strong after being beset by numerous equipment and staffing problems that for almost three years left towns with limited county dredging services – which cost 73 percent less than market-rate dredging and translated into $6 million in savings for towns’ last year.
The county hired a new dredge administrator, Cirillo, to help straighten things out. He celebrated his one-year anniversary in August.
“They were looking to reset the whole department, find someone who could run it as a business,” Cirillo said. “It was a great year, there are so many balls in the air. The more challenges the better for me. Some people like to multi-task. I like to multi, multi, multi, multi-task.”
Cirillo grew up in Rhode Island, served in National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Marine Corps and also worked on NOAA research vessels off Washington and Alaska. He returned to New England in the late 1980s, working for C-MAP, now closed, that did electronic charts and charting systems, before landing at Garmin for a few years. He was out of the industry for a year when he saw the county’s job opening.
There seems to be universal approval for how the department has turned around, and that it’s essential.
“The dredge just dug out the whole mooring basin this spring,” Chatham’s Natural Resources Director Bob Duncanson said on a brilliant fall day, giving Massachusetts Lieutenant Governor Karyn Polito a tour of the pier. “Been a Godsend.”
Duncanson, and officials from other Cape communities, believe demand is going to increase as natural cycles are exacerbated by climate change. In a recent port profile study undertaken by the state Division of Marine Fisheries, the Fishermen’s Alliance and UMass Boston’s Urban Harbor’s Institute, dredging was the top concern in virtually every Massachusetts port.
“The work of the county dredge is as essential as maintaining our roads and highways. The Cape’s economic health hinges on having reliable ways to the sea,” said Seth Rolbein, who led the port profile effort for the Fishermen’s Alliance.
“Maintenance and repair is a challenge,” Cirillo admitted. “It’s just like a fishing boat, you can’t lose days.”
One of the issues is the tight window of work brought on by a permitting process that can be onerous. There are what is known as time of year (TOY) restrictions to protect different species during spawning, from flounder to horseshoe crabs, that shut the dredge out of communities for up to five months at a time. Most dredging during the busy summer beach season is out as well.
The Fishermen’s Alliance hopes to work with scientists and regulators to see when fish populations are present and help eliminate bottlenecks.
“No wonder dredging came up as a top priority for communities,” said Dawson Farber, harbormaster in Dennis, rattling off about five agencies who must sign off before work can begin. “It’s nothing shy of an absolute nightmare.”
Farber was one of the youngest harbormasters when he was appointed in Orleans close to 25 years ago. He has been working as harbormaster in Dennis for close to six years, and said the past several have been highly problematic on the dredging front. Nothing seems to happen quickly and no one seems to have any answers.
“It’s insanely frustrating,” Farber said.
Three or four years ago permitting agencies were encouraging communities to come up with a 10-year dredge plan, a holistic approach to what was needed. The idea was to streamline the process.
It has done the opposite, according to some. In Dennis, a neighbor sued to stop one of the smaller projects, which put the entire plan on hold. Everything went into limbo.
Farber said even though the town won the suit, the neighbors appealed. Farber has been calling agencies for a year and half trying to see what he can do.
“Radio silence,” he said. “It’s a prime example of a logjam in the process and we are not the only community dealing with this.”
Yarmouth is in a similar situation. The town has a 10-year plan that has yet to be approved. One of the issues is that the agencies aren’t clear on what is needed so when you sail over one hurdle, others pop up.
“The purpose was to ease burden for permitting agencies, but they just want to generate more burden. It is frustrating,” said Karl von Hone, natural resources director for Yarmouth, recently.
Since Farber got permission to treat the channel in Sesuit as a separate project, the county has been able to dredge it most years.
The area is so volatile that a few storms fill it back in again. Farber works with Cirillo and the dredge team to come as late in the season as possible.
Last year, they came December into January, managed to get the dredging done, but then were walloped by a trio of storms.
Farber said that they had contracted for 14,000 cubic yards and probably had 10,000 filled right back in.
“We have commercial boats running out of here all year long,” he said. “If the channel is restricted that has an impact on the industry. If boats are having to identify other ports you are conceivably taking away a revenue source, not to mention a cultural asset.”
The county dredge would come later in the season if it wasn’t for restrictions due to winter flounder. The dredge has to be out of there by Jan. 30, or postpone until after July 1. Shutting the channel in July and pumping material onto popular Cold Storage Beach is a non-starter.
“This is where a time of year restriction is really punishing the town,” Cirillo said.
Farber is supportive of protecting fish, but believes this restriction is outdated and not based on research; it’s highly unlikely flounder are breeding in the fast-paced current of the channel.
The southside channel to Bass River, at the boundary between Yarmouth and Dennis, wasn’t dredged last year because of scheduling and weather problems that were ultimately unworkable because of time of year closures and permitting issues.
“The system is definitely busted,” Farber said.
The dredging season wrapped up in July in Harwich, a little later than people wanted, but successfully.
“Dredging and people laying on the beach is not compatible,” said Harwich Harbormaster John Rendon.
With a lot of summer maintenance work the dredges were up and running in September, and often improvisation and creative solutions are the order of the day.
In Mashpee, Bevis and Randall used a chainsaw to cut a hole in the side of the pipe to divert some of the water pressure to lessen force on the beach. Gulls gathered around and tried to eat clams or crabs or whatever tasty tidbit was eddying in the manmade pool.
The experiment worked well, but it wasn’t something they would do often. That section of pipe was already damaged from a boat running over it.
While deckhand Andrew Dipietro took Cirillo out to the Cod Fish II, Randall was sent to Dennis on a land mission, to meet FedEx. The team was expecting a new cutting head, this one with teeth. Cirillo says the dredge works much like an eggbeater, with a pump.
Dipietro likes the work, a big change from when he was a chef: “I was born and raised on Cape Cod, but the places I have seen that I had never seen before is mind boggling.”
The crew was hoping to finish in Mashpee by mid-October and the Cod Fish II will head to Pamet Harbor where the county’s contractor completed a pre-dredge survey that determines the areas and volumes that need to be dredged.
Truro’s Harbormaster Tony Jackett remembers the county dredge’s first project, about 25 years ago, clearing out Truro’s Pamet. The original Cod Fish went in at high tide and at low tide it was grounded. Now the dredge comes back almost every year and the channel is navigable at all tides.
“It’s a game changer,” said Jackett, who used to captain a commercial fishing dragger in Provincetown, echoing the general sentiment.