CAROLINA BEACH, NC (WECT) – The side-casting dredge boat Merritt services the coastal inlets in North Carolina, but Carolina Beach boaters worry that the vessel won't be around for long.
The Army Corps of Engineers relies on Merritt to dredge the shallow waters of Carolina Beach Inlet along with several others. The Corps' regional office confirms that there is an on-going study about the boat, but WECT.com is waiting for details from the Corps' Washington, DC headquarters.
Captain Robert Schoonmaker, of the Carolina Beach Inlet Association, doesn't need the details. Just the mention of decommissioning the dredge boat has him baffled.
"You have to sit back and actually laugh a little bit that they would take a piece of equipment that's so vital to eastern North Carolina and even consider getting rid of it," he said.
Schoonmaker doesn't joke when it comes to inlet maintenance. The statistics from a research study show the economic impact that an accessible inlet provides Carolina Beach and the rest of coastal Carolina.
Roughly 8,000 jobs in charter and recreational fishing are connected to inlets, according to a report from Dr. Chris Dumas at UNC-Wilmington, those jobs do not include the industries that feel a secondary affect from an inlet that cannot connect boaters to open water.
"From gas stations and tackle shops to hotels and restaurants, if we lose the inlet then we're going to lose a lot of business that came here for fishing," said Schoonmaker.
An open waterway allows traffic to flow back and forth from the ocean, much like a deep, blue highway. Schoonmaker said inlets should received the same attention as other infrastructure on dry land.
"Dredging an inlet here in coastal North Carolina is no different than having to throw salt on I-40 when it snows up in the mountains," he said.
The Carolina Beach Inlet Association, along with Carolina Beach Town Council, have contacted the Army Corps of Engineers in hopes of saving dredge boat Merritt. The two groups will turn to state and federal lawmakers for support to find a solution to keep the inlets open.
"If they don't we're going to lose a heritage here on the North Carolina coast, and it's going to take years to recover from that," said Schoonmaker.
Other inlets serviced by Merritt include Lockwood's Folly, New Topsail Inlet, New River Inlet and Bogue Inlet.
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