By John Pappalardo
Our harbors serve as portals to the amazing world offshore, essential gateways providing crucial access.
But when our harbors are blocked, shoaled over by the natural dynamic, the impacts — physical, economic, social, environmental – damage us in myriad ways.
The age-old solution is dredging. Back when, people did it with hands, shovels and buckets. Now it’s hydraulic machines, barges, and long pipes sending thousands of cubic feet of “spoils” thousands of feet away. And seeing as there is no force that can stop sand from moving along our shores, plus sea level rise is adding more power to that migration, dredging in one form or another will continue for as long as we live on the coast.
This is a major public policy issue, and not just for the commercial fleet that depends on getting to water as much as commuters depend on getting to an office. But we haven’t done a good job keeping our harbors open, certainly no better than keeping our highways to Boston clear, which ain’t saying much.
Fifteen years ago our county purchased a dredge, and it’s done yeoman’s work (as well as generating a great financial return to taxpayers). But it can’t keep up with demand. The county purchased another dredge that has not worked well. Yet another county dredge is in the offing; let’s hope this one performs better, but the lag time now is so bad that some towns are considering major investments in dredges of their own.
No matter how many dredges the county or towns purchase, regulatory obstacles (let alone legal challenges) are daunting. Here’s just one example:
State regulations prohibit dredging when winter flounder might be spawning. In some areas the state says that’s from January until the end of May, in other areas from February until the end of June. This blocks many projects. But fishermen will tell you that winter flounder have not been spawning around here for a long time now, and the best science on this is now many years old. Efforts to update and improve the regs need to become a priority.
Geologists say the reason we need to dredge specific areas is the very reason why those areas don’t support a lot of bottom life; they are dynamic, shoaling and shifting, shoaling again, making it difficult for animals to settle. Plus, the areas we target are a tiny percent of the coast, which seems like a fine tradeoff; minimal or no biologic impact for broad economic and social benefits – and often dredging a harbor or river dramatically improves inland water quality with better tidal flushing.
This is one of the most important economic, environmental, and public safety issues on the coast, sandy Cape Cod front and center. A coordinated effort among town, county, state, and federal officials to streamline the dredging process would be a major, necessary improvement, speaking loudly to those who see the status quo as proof that the public sector can’t get the job done and can’t be trusted.
A study now underway, sponsored by the Division of Marine Fisheries in partnership with us at the Alliance and the Urban Harbors Institute at UMass-Boston, will soon profile all Massachusetts commercial harbors, and our informed bet (after see some early info) is that people are going to be amazed at how important and productive harbors remain. More work on this from the Cape Cod Commission will make an even stronger case for our region’s ports as economic engines.
Not long ago the Commonwealth offered millions of dollars in tax breaks to attract a single employer to the Boston waterfront. No offense to General Electric or the Seaport, but the number of jobs our harbors create, the ripples of benefits generated, far dwarf that project – not even counting public safety threats from shoddy harbor maintenance.
For the sake of everyone in our communities, from those whose livelihoods depend on it to those whose appreciation of this amazing place (and access to it) depend on it, we need to get this dredging thing right, and we need to do it now.
(John Pappalardo is CEO of the Cape Cod Commercial Fishermen’s Alliance)