BERLIN – In 1985, 24.5 million pounds of fish landed in Ocean City’s commercial harbor.
A decade later, that figure had dropped to 12.5 million pounds.
Today, less than five million pounds of fish comes into the harbor annually.
Those figures from the National Marine Fisheries Service won’t surprise anyone who frequents the docks on Harbor Road in West Ocean City. An area that was once teeming with boats is now home to fewer than a dozen.
“It used to be boat to boat,” said Sonny Gwin, a lobsterman of more than 25 years who runs the Skilligallee out of the commercial harbor.
While increasing regulations pushed some watermen out of the business, many opted to move north as access to Ocean City’s harbor became more and more difficult. In 2015, Joe Letts told The Dispatch he’d moved his fleet of five commercial clam boats — a multimillion dollar operation — to New Jersey several years ago because he couldn’t get them through the Ocean City Inlet. At close to 100 feet, the big boats were regularly damaged as they hit bottom trying to navigate the increasingly shallow channel.
Since then, shoaling in the area has only gotten worse. Gwin and his peers at the commercial harbor are no longer the only ones concerned.
“The issue is progressively getting worse,” said Brian Tinkler, general manager of Sunset Marina. “It’s gotten to the point it’s impacting recreational boats.”
Tinkler, like Gwin, believes shoaling has been on the rise since Hurricane Sandy in 2012. While the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers does periodic dredging in Ocean City, Tinkler says it’s not a long-term solution to shoaling. It barely keeps the channel passable.
“The effort to control it is a Band-Aid to the larger problem that’s not been addressed,” he said. “Sometimes it’s literally weeks after the dredge leaves that we’re experiencing problems. It’s no fault of theirs. The issue is much larger than the maintenance they’re performing.”
Shoaling, Tinkler explained, is a comprehensive issue that’s impacted by a variety of things. While a number of factors can contribute to shoaling — things like beach replenishment, a jetty that’s not long enough, rocks at the base of the Route 50 Bridge — he believes it will take a major project to really address the problem.
Gwin agrees. While he’s not sure what exactly would fix the problem, he’s confident that it’s getting worse. The winter before last, a commercial vessel that had a load of black sea bass to bring in couldn’t even reach the harbor. Gwin took his boat — relatively small by commercial standards — out to ferry the fish in, load after load. Wondering why the fishing boat’s captain didn’t simply go to another harbor? That wasn’t an option. Ocean City is the only sea port in the state of Maryland. Fish caught commercially in Maryland have to be brought in to Maryland.
While that highlights the importance of the issue to the commercial fishermen, Gwin stressed that was just one facet of the situation.
“The Inlet is more important than me,” Gwin said. “You have to look at sportfishing, recreational fishing, commercial fishing. You’ve got to add that up. That should be the importance, not just what comes in here commercially. If we don’t make a change and do something, it’s going to affect everybody.”
Brian Behe, first mate on the Moore Bills — a 60-foot charter boat based at the Ocean City Fishing Center — says the issue is already affecting everybody. While the obvious problem is water depth, or the lack of, a secondary issue is the increase in waves that can come with shallow water.
“Shoaling creates extreme turbulence,” he said, explaining that even though a boat might be able to get through a shallow passage of water, waves of 3-4 feet could stack up there with potential to capsize a small boat. “The Inlet will look like whitewater rapids which is even more unsafe for small boats than big boats. Everybody benefits from deep, navigable channels, from the big draggers to the pontoon boats. Lives could be saved and property spared the better our channels and waterways are.”
According to Behe, Sunset Marina is the first major port boaters traveling north from Morehead City in North Carolina have access to. It can accommodate boats up to 140 feet in length — if they can get to it.
In the past, visitors have included Steve Bisciotti’s Winning Drive, a 130-foot yacht, as well as the Guerrieri family’s Patti Lou.
“They need 10 feet of water,” Behe said.
In recent months, Gwin, who generally sees a water depth around eight feet, says he’s seen at least two pleasure yachts destined for Sunset Marina run aground.
“These guys all talk up and down the coast,” Behe said. “If Ocean City gets a reputation that it’s a pain in the ass to get in here, we’re going to be losing out on that money.”
And while sand is always moving and shifting beneath the water, navigation charts are not. A boater unfamiliar with the area is not going to have the local knowledge of Ocean City watermen.
“I’ve seen these yachts stop because they’re hard aground,” Behe said. Often they’re between the appropriate markers, but the sand has shifted.
“The marked channel is not always the most water,” Behe said, adding that a boat the size of the Moore Bills draws five feet of water. “There’s places inside the marked channels we can’t go.”
Tinkler echoed that concern.
“On a low tide right now, anyone drawing five feet needs to pay very close attention,” he said. “They can encounter problems.”
The Moore Bills isn’t the only boat in that situation. There are hundreds of boats that size in Ocean City. Tinkler said three quarters of the boats that competed in the White Marlin Open probably fit that category.
And whether they’re commercial fishing boats, recreational vessels or charter boats, they all generate spending in the resort area. While some are buying fuel and bait, others are staying in hotel rooms, chartering boats and eating in local restaurants.
“All of these dollars are contributing to the overall success of the Town of Ocean City,” Tinkler said, adding that the financial benefit to the local economy was tremendous. “As far as economic contribution, as boats get larger their contribution to the economy goes up dramatically.”
He pointed out that Ocean City was the self-proclaimed white marlin capital of the world.
““If we can’t get to them that title goes away,” he said.
Now that shoaling has become a cause for concern to everyone in the local fishing industry, a cooperative effort to find a solution, spearheaded by Senator Jim Mathias, U.S. Senators Chris Van Hollen, Ben Cardin and Delegate Mary Beth Carozza, is underway. Attorney Mark Cropper is working with local watermen and political officials to compile information aimed at increasing Ocean City’s chances for federal funding.
“We’re trying to get away from the periodic, temporary dredging activities to something more substantial, more permanent, so we’re not constantly sticking a Band-Aid on the problem,” Cropper said.
According to Gwin, finding funding to address the constant shoaling has long been a challenge. Federal funding, he explained, is based on the commercial impact of the harbor. As more and more boats have left the harbor—because of the shoaling—its funding priority has dropped.
“It’s a catch 22,” Gwin said. “Boats have left because they can’t get through and now there’s not enough money coming in [to get funding for dredging].”
Worcester County Commissioner Bud Church says the key to changing that will be convincing federal agencies to take into account the commercial impact of Ocean City’s charter boat fleet.
“That will move it up the ladder to get funding,” Church said.
While he’s thrilled that so many different groups have joined in the effort to address what he considers an emergency situation, Church is frustrated by the county’s lack of action. Worcester County, he said, had been asked by the various groups involved to have a study done to determine the economic impact of the Ocean City Inlet.
“I can’t get the county to move on it,” Church said. “The president of the commissioners doesn’t want it done. I’m embarrassed to tell you this but the county is the clog in the vein that keeps things from moving.”
Jim Bunting, president of the commissioners, said that was not the case.
“I don’t know where Commissioner Church got that opinion,” he said.
Bunting said that he supported the economic impact study and only wanted to make sure that it included everything necessary so that it would meet the needs of the Army Corps of Engineers.
“We have to meet certain criteria to get anything done,” he said, acknowledging that shoaling had created a dire situation in Ocean City.
Bunting maintained that county staff members were developing a request for proposals and would be working with the Army Corp of Engineers to make sure the consultant chosen for the study would provide the necessary information.
Members of the fishing community are hopeful that this newest cooperative effort of commercial fishing industry and the recreational fishing industry to find a long-term solution to shoaling will prove fruitful.
“Few things could bring two groups closer together than their need to access the ocean,” Tinkler said. “I think we finally have the attention of all the right players.”
This collaboration should be on display this weekend when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Murden dredge will target hotspots identified by the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR) during surveys conducted last month in and around the Inlet.
“These meetings show that government is responsive and really does work for the stakeholders, and should give maritime industry leaders confidence in their elected officials,” Mathias said.
Cardin added, “This is a start, and as we continuing moving forward to accomplish long term solutions protecting the Ocean City Inlet, it’s yet another example of what we can accomplish by working together.”