BERLIN – In 2011, Joe Letts managed a fleet of five commercial clam boats in Ocean City. He had 42 employees. It took 2.7 million gallons of locally purchased fuel to run his boats. Groceries alone cost him $60,000 that year.
Today, all that money is being spent in New Jersey. The ever-decreasing depth of the Ocean City Inlet made it harder and harder for him to get his 100-foot boats in without damage. The Ocean City native, whose father and grandfather fished here, was forced to move north.
“We pulled our multi-million dollar operation out of Ocean City and now I’m stuck in this [expletive deleted]-hole called New Jersey,” he said.
Three years after the move, Letts is still bitter. On trips home he has noticed the number of boats in the harbor continue to dwindle.
“Ocean City used to be a thriving Inlet for commercial fishing,” he said. “Now you’ve got a handful of owner-operators.”
He says that’s all because of one thing — a shallow Inlet. With a depth of 12 feet and sand constantly coming in, even the smallest boats are now having trouble navigating the channel. At 100 feet, the boats Letts managed were constantly scraping bottom. Trips to the shipyard for repairs, typically done every three years, became annual events, costing the company hundreds of thousands of dollars and weeks out of the water.
“It was tearing up the boats,” he said.
And it still is, according to county officials.
“Our commercial fishermen are bouncing hulls off shoals down there,” said Bob Mitchell, director of environmental programs for Worcester County.
At his advice, the Worcester County Commissioners agreed this week to share their concerns about the channel with the Army Corps of Engineers as the federal agency prepares for its semi-annual dredging of the Inlet. Mitchell encouraged officials to make the agency aware of the importance of the dredging and to ask them to do some research to determine why the channel’s depth remains a problem in spite of the dredging.
“There’s something going on there worse than what they’re trying to rectify with semi-annual dredging …,” Mitchell said. “We have some significant shoaling in the Inlet. Perhaps it would behoove them to take some additional actions.”
Commissioner Bud Church agreed. He said he had seen numerous fishermen leave the harbor for good when they got fed up with damaging their boats and waiting hours for the high tide that would enable them to make it through the Inlet.
“There’s the potential for tens of millions of dollars if we could get that dredged and keep it open,” he said. “It’s a lot of lost revenue to the business community and the county.”
Commissioner Joe Mitrecic also advocated for a permanent solution to the problem. He pointed out the trouble there would be if a boat got stuck trying to come into the harbor.
“I don’t know what needs to be done but something needs to be done,” he said.
Pat Schrawder, a representative of Delegate Mary Beth Carozza, said Carozza had already scheduled a meeting with Maryland’s Department of Natural Resources, the Maryland Department of the Environment and the Army Corps of Engineers to discuss the issue.
Church said he knew the state and even the federal governments were aware of the problem but that thus far little had been done to address it.
“I think the county needs to be more aggressive in getting this resolved,” he said.
Letts just wishes someone would tackle the issue. He says he spent years talking to legislators and committees about it all to no avail. He believes a focus on tourism has allowed many to forget Ocean City’s fishing heritage.
“It’s a shame,” he said, adding that as Maryland’s only ocean-going Inlet Ocean City stood to gain millions in economic impact if its commercial fishing industry was revived. “If they dig the Inlet, people will come back.”