Block Island Harbors had a busy summer

Fri, 10/23/2020 - 10:00am
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Just as numbers from the Water and Sewer Departments and the Block Island Power Company tell a story about tourism-directed economic activity, so do the statistics from the Harbors Department. And the numbers are in.

In a report provided to the Harbors Committee for its meeting on October 15, Harbormaster Kate McConville laid out the results of the 2020 summer season, which extends from May 1 through September 30. Despite a slow start due to R.I. Department of Environmental Management Covid-19 restrictions, and travel restrictions in general, activity picked up and exceeded expectations. 

Overall, 2020 town mooring rentals and wharfage revenues, at $524,389, were only down 4.9 percent over the 2019 season. However, they were up by 4.6 percent over the 2018 season. While there are always variations in the weather – there was no hurricane scare just before Labor Day, and boats generally are becoming larger, there was one other factor that may have played a part. The influx of sand into Old Harbor coupled with no dredging in the past two years meant that the bait dock and 75 feet of the town dock could not be utilized for transient vessels. In her report, McConville writes that: “The Old Harbor Dockmaster estimated the loss of revenue close to $2000 a weekend…”

The sand has also caused a “hazard to navigation” in the channel. Dredging is now occurring. In May, The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers notified the Harbors Department that they would be dredging the anchorage area and inner basin in Old Harbor beginning in October. At the meeting on Thursday, McConville notified the committee that the Corps is currently working to get dredging of the bait dock and town dock included in the project, which would save about $25,000 over it being performed separately.

Unlike other revenues, sales of shell-fishing licenses were up six percent, moving from $50,055 in 2019 to $52,972 in 2020.

McConville deemed her first summer as Harbormaster as successful, and wrote: “I would like to recognize my 2020 staff for their dedicated spirit of coming to work and interacting with hundreds of people on a daily basis. The public health crisis did not hinder boating or shell-fishing on Block Island in the slightest.”

Looking forward towards the 2021 season, McConville tasked the committee with updating sections of the Old Harbor Town Dock Policy, which is a part of the overall Harbor Management Plan. The Old Harbor Dock Policy has not been updated since 2004, and contains contradictory language pertaining to the transfer of berths between parties. As these requests present themselves, McConville asked that the policy be clarified so that any interpretation by the harbormaster would not be construed, in any way as unethical or discriminatory. She called for it to be clear whether or not it is permitted for a berth to be transferred to a family member.

In particular, paragraph five of section A states that: “Berthing permits shall not be transferred with the sale of any vessel. The berthing permit will remain with the permit holder provided that a new vessel is purchased within one year and all fees remain paid in full. The sale of more than 50 percent of ownership of a vessel, stock or otherwise, shall be deemed to be the sale of the vessel with the same prohibition on the transfer of berthing rights as described above.”

Paragraph 12 however, states: “Any berthing permit is specific to a vessel and may not be transferred without written approval of the Harbormaster.”

The issue, which will be reviewed and discussed further at future meetings, led to a discussion as to whether the berths were being used in a proper manner. The west dock, with nine slips, is reserved for commercial fisherman, and the south dock has five slips for charter boats. Commercial fishing boats are supposed to be engaged in fishing for at least 50 days per year, and charter boats used for at least 30 days.

Due to Covid-19, rules for this year have been suspended, but some committee members felt that the commercial fishing berths were being used by boats not engaged in commercial fishing, and McConville wondered whether language should be added to allow boats to engage in “supplemental work,” such as transporting people to the Block Island Wind Farm.

Committee member Pat Evans took issue with this.

“You’re opening a door,” he said. “If those slips open up to non-commercial fishing, then none of the boats will ever leave.”

Later, McConville said, as Evans prepared to leave the Zoom meeting: “I appreciate what you said. I did not think about that.

Committee Chair Denny Heinz noted that on the west dock, only two boats were doing commercial fishing. Just earlier he had asked if there was a waiting list for the berths, and was told that there were two lists, one for the charter berths, and one for the commercial fishing berths. Each has seven people.

The committee decided they would tighten up enforcement on commercial fishing vessels, starting next year. Renewals take place in April, and after the 2021 renewal, but before the 2022 renewal, “we will be looking at their logs,” said McConville.