Oregon Inlet, North Carolina’s northernmost inlet and an important route to the ocean for commercial and recreational fishing boats, was closed to most boat traffic on March 28 due to excessive shoaling in the channel under and seaward of the Herbert C. Bonner Bridge.
The U.S. Coast Guard determined that the navigational channel had been reduced to only 3 feet, which led to the closure for boats that draft more than 2 feet of water. The inlet remains open to boats that draft 2 feet of water or less.
Oregon Inlet fishermen pointed out that there is plenty of water about 10 spans south of the bulk-headed navigation channel, and they have been using that route for a while. The Coast Guard’s response was the span the fishermen have been using is significantly narrower than the navigational span and is not bulk-headed, so there is no protection for the bridge pilings should a boat lose power or be caught in the strong currents of the inlet and strike the bridge. This area is on the downslope of the bridge and boats using it have to lower their downriggers to pass under the bridge.
The closure couldn't have come at a worse time for charter and commercial fleets from Oregon Inlet, Manteo and Wanchese. It effectively shut down the last four days of the commercial bluefin tuna season at a time when the fishing has been picking up, as well as the beginning of the yellowfin tuna charter season with boats booked on either side of Easter.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Wilmington District has sent a dredge to Oregon Inlet; work was expected to start in early April, but whether dredging would help restore the channel is a big question mark. Oregon Inlet has proven to be resistant to dredging in recent years. Almost $10 million was spent dredging the inlet after Hurricane Sandy in 2012, and the channel filled back in within a few months. The natural channel has migrated south of the existing navigation span. Further complicating the problem is the fact that federal funds for dredging have been cut in each budget for a decade and there isn't a steady source of state, county or local funds to replace them.
"The side cast dredge Merritt was deployed to Oregon Inlet on March 30 and is expected to begin work on April 1," said Donnie Potter of the USACE. "The hopper dredge Currituck is currently scheduled to arrive about 10 days later, after the Merritt has opened a pilot channel to accommodate the larger dredge. Weather and the ability of the Merritt to cut the pilot channel through the shallow bar on the seaward side of the bridge will be the determining factors in how quickly the work progresses."