Massachusetts is the only state on the east coast that bans offshore sand mining. But the recently released 206-page 2014 Ocean Management Plan (OMP), compiled by the Massachusetts Office of Coastal Zone Management (CZM), proposes the formation of up to nine offshore sand mining pilot projects. Since the report was released, Oak Bluffs officials have been staunch advocates of offshore sand mining. In a letter to CZM dated October 22, Oak Bluffs town administrator Robert Whritenour, on behalf of the board of selectmen, wrote, “It has become clear to us that without the availability of offshore sand resources, [Oak Bluffs] will be unable to preserve our coastal resources. The town strongly supports the use of sand mining in Massachusetts.”
At their regular meeting on Tuesday night, however, selectmen reconsidered their position. Responding to information presented at last week’s public meeting with CZM officials and the Martha’s Vineyard Commission, the board agreed that offshore sand mining was a more complex solution than previously thought, and that a more measured response to the CZM was in order.
“We all went to the commission meeting, and we heard a slightly different discussion than we anticipated,” chairman of the selectmen Greg Coogan said.
Warren Doty, a Chilmark selectman and the founding president of two fishermen’s organizations, was on hand to speak against sand mining. “Every time you collect sand, you’re disturbing the benthic environment, which is six inches of sand and mud and dirt at the bottom and is the base of the food chain,” he said. “In Nantucket Sound, the major fishery is conch (channel whelks). There are two million pounds of channel whelk landed in Martha’s Vineyard in 2014 and the price is over $2 a pound. Something in the neighborhood of $4 million is coming into this fishery. It is the most profitable fishery on the Island, and it’s very sensitive to changes in the sea bottom.”
Mr. Doty said sand mining in Vineyard sound would likewise jeopardize the winter flounder population.
“The issue is not just supporting sand mining itself,” selectman Gail Barmakian said. “We want all the sand we can possibly get, but not at the cost of our fisheries. We don’t live in a vacuum here. We have to do a cost-benefit analysis. They say Rhode Island is successfully balancing both sides of the issue, but there hasn’t been any track record with long-term data.”
“This is an exceptionally complex issue,” conservation commissioner Joan Hughes said. “We need to deal with hard science and good statistics and find out how we can solve problems for both. Connecticut, New York, and New Jersey have done this. There’s a lot of very good science out there.”
Shellfish constable David Grunden said that the state would rigorously monitor the pilot projects to minimize environmental damage and that ultimately the town has to take substantive action, especially given its northeastern exposure. “If Oak Bluffs didn’t have infrastructure that was so exposed, especially during northeasters, I would probably be on the other side of this, but I’m all in favor of it,” he said. “Our low-lying roads are in peril. It’s even worse when you factor in climate change and sea level rise. The town must insist that the state allow [sand mining] to protect the town infrastructure. It’s not going to be cheap, but there’s no cheap way to protect the town from the northeast exposure.”
Mr. Grunden showed the selectmen a map that indicated the closest potential sand mining site to Oak Bluffs was three miles offshore. Selectman Michael Santoro asked why sand could not be mined closer to shore, where it has been clearly building up for years. “It’s very difficult when you get involved in these projects because a lot of the common sense solutions are not acceptable,” Ms. Hughes said. “We asked about this, but the Army Corps of Engineers refused.”
Mr. Grunden added that mining sand closer to shore can be counterproductive, as a mass of sand near the shore can help impede wave energy during storms. Moving that sand would remove that benefit.
Speaking as a selectman, Mr. Doty said the town of Chilmark is particularly opposed to mining between the north shore and Cuttyhunk. “The idea that we’ll stand on Menemsha beach and see a 150-foot barge take sand to Hyannis is not acceptable.” he said.
“I don’t think any of us want to see a big operation that could supply Hyannis,” Ms. Barmakian said.
The revised letter from the selectmen will be sent to the CMZ once the 60-day public comment period on (OMP) ends at 5 pm on Tuesday, November 25.
The ocean plan draft is available online at the EEA website, mass.gov/eea/. Comments can be emailed to firstname.lastname@example.org.