After the death of 2 fishermen, Outer Banks watermen call for dredging in notoriously rough waters

MANTEO — Ten Outer Banks watermen passionately spoke against the red tape surrounding permits for Oregon Inlet dredging that they say has a human cost. They were among about 80 attendees at a state commission meeting held Wednesday afternoon at the North Carolina Aquarium on Roanoke Island in Manteo.

“All this red tape and all that permits cost us two of my dearest friends’ lives Sunday night,” longtime local fisherman Michael Merritt stated, choking up.

He and several other speakers during public comment referenced the recent death of Capt. Charlie “Griff” Griffin of “Wicked Tuna: Outer Banks” fame and the assumed death of Chad Dunn, who is missing from the same tragic voyage that ended in what is widely assumed as a boating accident near the treacherous Oregon Inlet.

Merritt said he and “all us have…lost two dear friends, and not because they were amateurs — they were well adept and knew how to do it.”

Oregon Inlet is “the most dangerous inlet on the East Coast,” which cost over 21 people’s lives and 26 boats from the 1960s through 2017, according to a 2017 CURRENTtv documentary.

Six of the 16 legislators on the Environmental Review Commission were present at the meeting held in Neptune’s Theater at the aquarium. A quorum would have been seven members.

The commission was established by state statute in 1987 to evaluate how the actions of state and local boards and agencies relate to the environment.

Among other tasks, the commission is charged with reviewing “existing and proposed state law and rules affecting the environment or protection of the environment and to determine whether any modification of law or rules is in the public interest,” according to the state statute.

Most of the nearly 2.5-hour-long meeting was dedicated to informational presentations — one about shellfish and one about the dredging process and permitting.

But public commenters were focused on frustrations that a dredge is physically present but unable to operate as intended because of the lengthy permitting process.

“Y’all have worn out three people trying to talk about all of this — what good is that?,” questioned Britton Shackelford, a captain appearing on “Wicked Tuna: Outer Banks,” as he waved the agenda packet.

“The fact that you’ve got to go through all of this to maintain a safe environment for people to come and go to work is absolutely ridiculous,” Shackelford said.

“We’ve lost two of our fishermen this past week — very well-known fishermen to not only the industry here but also ‘Wicked Tuna: Outer Banks’ series,” Dare County Commissioner Steve House said.

“We’re still waiting here for a permit,” House said. “That’s unacceptable.”

“We don’t have a Mother Nature problem; we have a people problem,” declared Steve King, whose family manages the Oregon Inlet Fishing Center.

“The dead hand of government has to be removed from the permitting process so an instrument of public-private partnership that’s in place can get the job done,” King continued during his public comment. “We can handle Mother Nature’s problems if only given the opportunity.”

The public-private partnership dredge, Miss Katie, is owned by EJE Dredging Service and arrived in Dare County in August 2022. Dare County allocates $3 million annually for dredging Oregon Inlet while the state provides $9 million annually, according to county information.

House called the process for obtaining permits for Miss Katie “cumbersome,” noting that they started the process in August 2022 “and still do not have it finalized.”

House chairs both the Oregon Inlet Task Force, which directs the dredge, and the Dare County Commission for Working Watermen.

Dredging also receives limited federal funding, as three presenters to the legislators outlined.

Jonathan Howell of the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality’s Division of Coastal Management and Justin McCorcle and Tyler Crumbley of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) gave the dredging presentation.

Dredging maintains navigable water depths for commercial, recreational, transportation-related and military vessels, and permitting requires balancing the need for dredging with public trust resources and environmental protection, according to their presentation.

According to presentation slides, Manteo (Shallowbag) Bay, which includes Oregon Inlet, saw $7,265,000 of federal funding allocated in fiscal year 2023.

Dare County Manager Bobby Outten explained over the phone Friday that the USACE dredged Oregon Inlet and the other channels in Dare County before the county obtained the Miss Katie.

Miss Katie was unable to operate under USACE permits and required obtaining its own permits from the state’s Division of Coastal Management and from the USACE — one permit for each area needing to be dredged, he said.

Other state and federal agencies also have input into the federal and state permitting processes.

“It’s very lengthy and slow and cumbersome,” Outten said. “From our perception, some of the things that hang permits up don’t seem to be common sensical.”

“We started this process in August 2022 and still do not have it finalized,” House said during public comment Wednesday.

House chairs both the Oregon Inlet Task Force, which directs the dredge, and the Dare County Commission for Working Watermen.

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He wrote a letter to commission members, which outlines some of the issues that fall outside of “common sense.”

In one example, the USACE dredge plan gave Dare County and Miss Katie a dredge box — meaning an acceptable area in which to dredge — that “has a clear and well-known shipwreck (W.G. Townsend) in it,” meaning dredging there would violate state permits, according to House’s letter.

Sen. Bobby Hanig, R-Currituck, said that he heard nothing about “public safety” during the presentation.

“There’s no reason we can’t keep our waterways clear,” Hanig opined. “There’s no reason that a hard-working man or woman has to risk their life every single day to go out of that island and make a living.”

Sen. Norm Sanderson, R-Pamlico, who co-chairs the commission, also agreed with public commenters and spoke in favor of a more expedited permitting process.

“Bobby, myself and our other coastal area legislators totally understand what you guys are going through,” Sanderson said.

“How can we fix it?,” said Sen. Paul Lowe, D-Forsyth. “And how can we have a real conversation for a fix that needs to be done?”

“I think Senator Lowe gave us our assignment on this,” concluded Rep. Jimmy Dixon, R-Duplin, who is commission co-chair.

Tancred Miller, who was appointed the new director of the Division of Coastal Management just over a month ago, asked to speak before the meeting ended.

“If there are changes required in the way we operate, we are open to making those changes,” Miller said.