Oregon Inlet is closed to vessels drawing more than 2 feet, essentially shutting down the charter fishing fleet with four days left in the bluefin tuna season and as Easter week approaches.
Petty Officer Kathryn Bruner with the Coast Guard in Wilmington said Saturday that the closing was prompted by the latest U.S. Army Corps of Engineers survey, which showed that search-and-rescue vessels can no longer get out of the inlet.
Emergencies will be handled by helicopters out of the Coast Guard’s air station in Elizabeth City, she said.
A buffer zone of 100 yards on either side of the Bonner Bridge will be enforced, she said, with fines for violators of $32,500. There was no estimate on how long the closing will last.
Warning of the potential for “catastrophic damage” to the Bonner Bridge, the Coast Guard assumed broader power to regulate boat traffic in Oregon Inlet in December. It allows the Coast Guard to establish a “temporary regulated navigation area.”
The federal channel running under the navigation span of the Bonner Bridge has been impassable for weeks, and boaters have been finding unmarked passages under spans farther south.
Word of the closing quickly spread.
Charley Pereira, president of the Southeast Bluefin Tuna Association, said that charter fishermen are so furious that they are discussing an “organized blockade” at the courthouse in Manteo on Monday.
“If we can’t work, they can’t work,” he said.
Four days days are left in the commercial bluefin season – which has been hopping — and charter trips are booked heavily in April and May. “It’s just insane that they would do this,” Pereira said.
Pereira said that local captains know their way around the shoaling, finding routes ranging from 8 feet to 35 feet deep. Charter boats need 3 to 5 feet.
“We’ve been getting out every day,” he said. “It’s easy — you go out there and look. You can see where the shoals are.”
One boat heads out first thing in the morning, finds the good water and radios everyone, he said. Captains have been using the “Big Block” — an area about 12 spans from the main span — as a reference point.
A Coast Guard statement later in the day said that the Army Corps of Engineers plans to send a dredge within the week.
Catherine Kozak contributed to this story.