Behind the scenes, state agency provides fishing access

Douglas Cameron, Office of Fishing and Boating Access assistant director, in front of the construction site of the fishing pier that will help provide public access for all of us.
Photo by Nelson Sigelman

Douglas Cameron, Office of Fishing and Boating Access assistant director, in front of the construction site of the fishing pier that will help provide public access for all of us.

The ability to access a fishing spot, or launch a boat, canoe or kayak is pretty important to many residents and visitors on Martha’s Vineyard. Measured against our miles of shoreline, there are not as many opportunities as one might hope to find.

And from season to season there is no assurance that a familiar access will remain. Particularly, if it is dependent on the willingness of private property owners to share.

About three years ago in Tisbury, the Mink Meadows Association decided to lock the gate to its private beach 24/7 year-round. Prior to that, the gate was only locked in the summer to discourage late-night drinking parties. It was disheartening to lose convenient access to that stretch of beach even in the off-season.

Still, we are more fortunate than many. There is not a town on Martha’s Vineyard that does not have a beach open to the public with good fishing, whether it is owned by a town or a public or private conservation organization. These include the Martha’s Vineyard Land Bank, Sheriff’s Meadow Foundation and The Trustees of Reservations.

Less well-known than these familiar Island organizations, but just as important to those who value the outdoor experience here and across Massachusetts is the Office of Fishing and Boating Access (FBA), formerly known as the Public Access Board.

This is the agency that is currently constructing what will be the first pier on Martha’s Vineyard devoted solely and exclusively to fishing. It will also be the first pier of its type in the state’s coastal waters, a place where kids and families can easily go to fish.

It would be easy to think that the pier proposal was welcomed with open arms. Or that it had a clear shot. Not on Martha’s Vineyard.

The idea for a fishing pier began with the rebuilding of the Oak Bluffs Steamship Authority terminal. The original idea was to incorporate a fishing platform into the pier. That plan disappeared after 9/11, due to security concerns, but not the idea.

In 2007, FBA signed an agreement with the town of Oak Bluffs to cover 100 percent of the cost of a fishing pier’s design, permitting, and construction, estimated at $750,000 to $1 million. Oak Bluffs agreed to be responsible for day-to-day operations and maintenance, public safety and policing.

Neighbors objected to the location. Fisherman David Nash of Edgartown, quietly, and with the support of the Martha’s Vineyard Surfcasters Association, persisted.

In May, Field and Stream Magazine named Dave to its monthly list of “Heroes of Conservation.”

“Considering it’s an island, Martha’s Vineyard doesn’t have many places for kids to drop a line,” Dave told the magazine.

The designation arrived with a check for $500 that Dave donated to the Derby and the Rod and Gun Club to support kids’ fishing events that include future programs that will be able to utilize the new pier.

A few weeks ago, I visited the pier work site and spoke to Douglas Cameron, FBA assistant director and deputy chief engineer for Fish and Game. Workers were busy pouring footings for the ramp that will allow disabled people to access the pier.

With a storm approaching, the barge used to drive in pilings was being prepared to head for shelter in Vineyard Haven harbor. One weather-dependent question was how much work could be accomplished before the July 1 deadline when work must stop to spare summer visitors and nearby residents and businesses the incessant pounding of pilings. Work is scheduled to resume on the project in September after Labor Day.

The pier will extend 317 feet from the seawall and be about 10 feet above the water at low tide. The original design called for the pier to be lower to the water but that was changed after the engineers saw what happened to the Oak Bluffs Steamship Authority pier during Hurricane Sandy. A good deal of the decking was damaged or destroyed.

“The deck height is now designed to be one foot above a non-hurricane storm event,” Doug said.

The Oak Bluffs fishing pier will incorporate everything FBA has learned about building piers and additional expertise from a consultant hired just for this project. This will be the first pier in an exposed, ocean location.

Originally, the pier was designed with 3 timber piles across and traditional New England cross-bracing, Doug said. They took another look at the cross-bracing and came up with an alternative design that utilizes two piles across, a more streamlined profile that eliminated the need for cross-bracing.

The contract completion date is October 30. Doug hopes to push that date up, but it will depend on the weather. “I would love to have it done in September,” Doug said, “but this is a construction project in a coastal situation. A lot can happen.”

I assured Doug that on Martha’s Vineyard any building project completed earlier, rather than later, is cause for amazement.

Doug lives in Mattapoisett and has been with the FAB for 20 years in June. A fisherman, he likes his job. I asked him what he finds rewarding about it.

“Well, I like to fish. I like seeing things get built. And the big thing is, you are doing something for people who really appreciate fishing and boating access. And knowing how tough it is to find a place to fish, and a safe place for kids — I had little kids at one point in time and having them scramble up and down slippery rocks on a jetty is nerve-wracking — this is something that hopefully we will see more of.”

Doug works under FAB director Jack Sheppard, one of those under-the-radar type of professional state bureaucrats who has actually made a difference in people’s lives. Through his efforts, millions of residents and visitors can access beaches, lakes, and streams to boat and fish.

On Martha’s Vineyard, FAB projects have included the Lagoon Pond launch ramp, a canoe slide on Cape Poge bay, boat ramps on Sengekontacket Pond in Oak Bluffs and on Katama Bay in Edgartown.

Jack is a down-to-earth guy who brings his sympathy and understanding of working-class stiffs to a job where he often must battle the not-in-my-backyard crowd. Despite recent serious health issues Jack returned to his job because he loves what he does and wants to remain doing it. With the summer months here, many people will be taking advantage of the facilities that Jack Sheppard helped to provide over his long career.