Commercial fishermen, those salty and seasoned purveyors of the sea, routinely have to battle unpredictable elements—20-foot swells, squalls, 40-knot winds—making their profession one of the most dangerous on the planet. Those based at the commercial dock on Dune Road in Hampton Bays, and who pull in, on average, close to six million pounds of fish a year from the Atlantic, must contend with another well-documented obstacle: Shinnecock Inlet.
The shallow and narrow inlet, last dredged by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in March 2004 when an estimated 300,000 cubic yards of sand and silt were removed from the vital waterway, has already, either directly or indirectly, resulted in the sinking of three commercial boats in less than three years and, just two weeks ago, the near-loss of a fourth.
On March 7, the North Sea and its three-man crew almost became the fourth commercial vessel victimized by the Shinnecock Inlet since January 2005. The boat ran aground while attempting to navigate the channel, which is not expected to be dredged again until next year at the earliest, while battling 20-knot winds as well as rain and fog. The crew was fortunate in that, aside from a few dozen bushels of fish that were claimed by the sea, they were able to return to port with nothing more than scrapes and bruises.
The problem, according those familiar with conditions at the inlet, is that too much sand and silt have once again accumulated in it, making navigation only possible at high tide and treacherous at others. At low tide, officials estimate that the channel is less than eight feet deep, a condition that is problematic when some of the larger boats in the commercial fleet draw closer to 12 feet of water.
It’s an unwelcome scenario that forces captains to either wait for the next high tide, which could prove risky during storms, or complete a five-hour trek around Montauk Point and through Shinnecock Canal to reach Shinnecock Bay. Both options not only cost boat captains precious time and money but, in stormy conditions like those experienced two weeks ago, their haul and, possibly, their boats. It is only a matter of time before a fisherman loses his life unless action is taken to remedy the problem.
Federal officials are estimating that it will cost between $5 million and $10 million, with the latter figure probably being the more accurate one, to dredge the Shinnecock Inlet. While that certainly is a huge investment, it is one that must be paid and on a far more routine basis.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers cannot afford to wait until next year to dredge the inlet; it needs to make this project one of its top priorities for this year, before a life is lost. Those behind what has evolved into an $8 million a year industry should not be forced to take their lives into their hands not once, but twice, every time they stray from shore looking for bounty.
It should be noted that the most recent report documenting the number of fatalities occurring in the workplace confirms a fact that many of us on the East End, especially those walking on the docks on Dune Road, have known for decades: commercial fishing is one of the most dangerous professions. A 2006 report issued by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics states that 51 fishermen died two years ago, making it the most dangerous occupation to have that year. The fatality rate among fishermen was 141.7 per 100,000, as one out of every 710 fishermen who left the docks in 2006 never returned home. (While 95 loggers died on the job that year, their fatality rate was considerably lower—85.6 per 100,000—because more than 111,000 people were employed in that field as compared to only 36,000 in commercial fishing.)
Local fishermen are well aware of the inherent dangers of a job that, at times, involves navigating tumultuous, 20-foot seas, handling hundreds of pounds of netting on the open ocean, and transporting back to shore thousands of pounds of fish all the while battling rain, snow, fog, sleet and wind. They should not have to cross their collective fingers every time they navigate Shinnecock Inlet, and think that there is a very good possibility that they could lose their lives so close to shore.