Ocean City Today

Inlet buoys could be moved to reduce boat damage risk

Shoaling has made waters impassible before, channel may be relocated eventually
By Brian Gilliland | Aug 31, 2017
Photo by: Josh Davis One of the dredges clearing the shoaling at the Ocean City Inlet last year.

(Sept. 1, 2017) Since June’s Maryland Municipal League conference, government officials and private interests have gathered on three occasions to work on the shoaling problem in the Ocean City Inlet, which has been increasingly difficult to navigate in recent years.

The first answer, delivered about two years ago by the Army Corps of Engineers, was a comprehensive study of the inlet area to determine, and possibly suggest action to prevent boats from running aground at Maryland’s only ocean port.

That study was deemed too complex and time consuming to carry out, and the scope has since been shifted to a large “scour hole” near Gudelsky Park, formerly known as Stinky Beach, with a result expected in 2019.

But now, circumstances appear to have changed again, as the promised action and regular dredging have not yet provided a permanent, sustainable solution to prevent damage to commercial and recreational watercraft.

As recently as March, the commercial fishing vessel Instigator was stuck, and dredging in May has kept the waters navigable in the meantime.

The new idea is to change the rules, not the game — the Army Corps of Engineers and the Department of Natural Resources are surveying the inlet to identify where the deep water is so channel buoys can be relocated accordingly. In the meantime, the work will continue on the Gudelsky Park study.

“In the short term, the Department of Natural Resources will conduct survey work on the Ocean City Inlet in support of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ efforts to help vessels steer clear of shoaling,” Gregg Bortz, public information officer for the DNR, said.

When that survey data is in hand, the Army Corps can take action.

“Once we get that data, we’re going to look at those [surveys] with the state to see what potential modifications to the buoys could be made, if any, based on channel conditions to help vessels steer clear going forward of shoaling and shoaling hot spots,” Chris Gardner, Army Corps spokesman, said.

If the data supports moving the buoys, Garner explained, the corps would have to coordinate with the Coast Guard to move them, since the buoys are Coast Guard property.

Sen. Jim Mathias, credited by more than one attendee with organizing the initial meeting in June, said dredging wasn’t going to solve the problem and that the partners were moving forward deliberately to achieve positive results.

Commercial fisherman Merrill Campbell was less optimistic.

“We’ve been having two meetings a year and it feels like we’re spinning our wheels. We’ve been working on this for four or five years now. It seems the feds have backed off the whole initiative, and made promises they didn’t fulfill,” he said.

Campbell said the inlet situation was beginning to affect the recreational boating community, and that might be enough to spur officials on to fixing the problem.

“We’ve been working on this for a long time, and after all was said and done, it seems like more was said than done,” County Commissioner Bud Church said.

Church, along with fellow Commissioner Joe Mitrecic, attended at least one of the meetings.

“Even the party boats are dragging, and they don’t draw nearly as much water as the commercial fishing boats do. During the White Marlin Open it looked like they were 15-20 feet off the south jetty, when they used to sail right down the center,” Church said.

What has emerged at the inlet is an ecosystem of captains, boats, fishermen and others all letting each other know when the best times to come to port are, so boaters don’t risk damage to their vessels.

City Engineer Terry McGean said watermen helped during the White Marlin Open by advising which buoys were safe to travel near, and which weren’t. As for the proposed solution, he knows moving the buoys to deeper waters isn’t a permanent one.

“This is a Band-Aid. One step beyond this is to get, and keep, the inlet dredged, which then becomes a money issue,” McGean said.

The channel from the inlet to the Route 90 bridge has been moved in the past, McGean said.

To bolster the argument, Church said he’s asked Worcester County Economic Development Director Merry Mears to begin formulating an impact study to determine what the potential costs have been to the resort and county over inlet shoaling.

That study would have to be approved by the full board of county commissioners, which next meets on Sept. 5.

“Ocean City is in competition (for money) with other ports like Baltimore, New York, New Jersey and others based on need. I hope the result of an economic impact study moves us up in the line. Right now, we’re pretty far down,” Church said.

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