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Clogged Oregon Inlet keeps charter boats docked

The Associated Press

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HATTERAS ISLAND, N.C. (AP) — Boat owners are concerned that the start of charter fishing season may leave them high and dry because the Oregon Inlet is clogged with sand.

The Virginian-Pilot of Norfolk reports (http://bit.ly/1me3Hz9) the inlet is clogged because of storms from the north that generally push sand into the channel. Winds from the south tend to push the sand out.

The week, the Army Corps of Engineers said the channel under the Bonner Bridge connecting Hatteras Island and the northern Outer Banks is only about 2 feet deep and too shallow to dredge.

Charter fishing season typically begins Easter weekend. Fishing boat owners have a choice of detouring some 50 miles south to Hatteras Inlet or risk passing under a narrow span of the Bonner Bridge south of the marked channel.

"You have no room for error," said James Reibel, charter boat fisherman on the board of the Commission for Working Watermen. "Everybody's scared to death of the place."

The Coast Guard advises against passing through such unmarked spans, where the water tends to be deeper but bridge pilings are closer.

A sport-fishing boat passing through an unmarked span struck the bridge and sank last summer. At least 25 people have died and 22 boats have been lost in the inlet since the 1960s, according to the Dare County website.

It costs $4 million to $5 million a year to keep the channel open; the federal budget allots $800,000 for Oregon Inlet and waterways near Manteo.

Federal funding depends on commercial hauling weight through the inlet and barely accounts for tourism impacts, said Harry Schiffman, vice chairman of the Dare County Oregon Inlet Task Force. About 200 boat trips from the Oregon Inlet Fishing Center alone passed through the channel daily. Charter and commercial fishing, boat-building and seafood-processing industries depending on Oregon Inlet generated a $682.7 million annual benefit to Dare County, according to a 2006 study.

Proposed offshore wind-energy projects and spawning fish are among other reasons to clear the inlet, Reibel said.

Anglers hope for answers soon, charter captain Johnny Morse said.

"Everybody here is in a holding pattern," Morse said. "They've always found a way. I've just got to believe they will do it again."

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Information from: The Virginian-Pilot, http://pilotonline.com

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