Katama Bay Anchorage Closed to Protect Waters

By MANDY LOCKE

Boaters looking for a place to anchor for the night won't find refuge in Katama Bay this summer.

Citing a deterioration in water quality in Katama Bay over the last several years, Edgartown officials have banned boaters from anchoring overnight in the area.

"The town made a decision. Do we want two months of boating or a year-round shellfishing industry? The answer was easy," said Charles Blair, Edgartown harbor master, who is fielding calls from frustrated sailors just learning of the new ban.

The closure was a long time coming, Mr. Blair admits. Every year for the last decade, more vessels - from 30-foot sailboats to 100-foot yachts - have been finding a place to camp overnight within these protected waters.

When Mr. Blair took on the job of harbor master in 1995, fewer than two dozen boats anchored down in the bay on the busiest summer nights. Any night in August last summer, 100 boats could be found nestled into Katama Bay.

The town charges these boaters no fees and offers pumpout services for free.

"If we don't try and save it now, nothing will be left," said Mr. Blair.

"When the Lagoon went critical last year, it was a wake-up call to us all," he added.

But at least one boater deems the town's blanket ban an overreaction to a problem caused by a few large boats or, more likely, the proliferation of large homes being built around the bay.

"It is easy and convenient to blame the boats and ignore the real causes; the large multi-bath homes that ring the bay and their septic systems and perhaps the worst polluter of all, the Edgartown outfall pipes which drain directly into the harbor," T.J. Salvidio, a frequent Edgartown sailor who lives in Worcester, said in a letter to selectmen and the harbor master last week.

Officials admit that fish kills in the bay are likely the result of several factors.

"Are we noticing fewer quahaugs in the center of the bay because of all the boaters? Obviously, it's more complex than that. We know they are not helping. But the boating is one thing we can control. We can't control the acid rain," said Paul Bagnall, Edgartown shellfish constable.

At least 10 small oil spills were recorded in Katama Bay last summer, Mr. Blair said.

Katama Bay is now home to several aquaculture ventures raising crops of oysters. Last season, juvenile oyster disease set in on one crop, killing half of the expected oysters. Stress can cause the onset of this disease, and Mr. Blair is convinced that gray water being released from boats into the bay contributes to this stress.

Tests performed last summer confirmed the presence of detergent in the bay. While Mr. Blair said most boaters are sensitive about releasing gray water into the harbor, many of the larger boats release discharge from washing machines and bleached water used to scrub boat decks.

The dumping of septage from boats into the harbor is strictly prohibited. The harbor master's department offers pump-out services free to boaters in Katama Bay each season. Last summer, the department pumped more than 20,000 gallons of septage from boats docked in Katama and throughout the harbor.

For $35 a night, boaters can tie onto one of the town's moorings in Edgartown's inner harbor - if they are lucky enough to get a reservation. The department has been taking reservations for two months, and the spaces are filling up quickly. The harbor master adopted a reservations-only policy several years ago.

"Asking me where I will be in August is the reason I sail. I don't want to have to know where I'll be. I like the freedom of making last-minute trips," said Mr. Salvidio in a phone conversation with the Gazette this week.

Boaters without a mooring reservation who want to spend the night in Edgartown waters can anchor in the outer harbor along the Chappaquiddick Beach Club. But when the wind blows from the northeast, as it often does in the summer, these boats find themselves in choppy seas.

While Mr. Salvidio has made no formal legal threat to the town, he does question whether the new policy could withstand a lawsuit.

"There were a million steps the town could have taken before it came to this," Mr. Salvidio said.

With transient boaters out of the area, the town will likely install a mooring field in the bay. These spots, which would offer space for fewer than 40 boaters, would pull some boat owners off the town's lengthy waiting list. The harbor master does not expect pollution from these boats because the owners will not be living aboard.

Town officials feel the bay closure is the right choice for shellfishermen and the health of the water. This past season, both commercial and recreational fishermen harvested 151 bushels of clams, 680 bushels of quahaugs, 17 bushels of oysters and 12 bushels of scallops.

"People love to quahaug there. Any summer day at low tide, you'll find 30 people raking for quahaugs in the bay," said Mr. Bagnall.

Only aggressive policies will protect the bay, officials said. They learned their lesson with the inner harbor. State officials began closing the harbor to shellfishing 30 years ago. Reversing these closures is rare, Mr. Blair said.

"Inner harbor has an automatic seasonal closure. That's what we didn't want for Katama Bay, and that's what was coming," said Mr. Blair. "Why wait until we lose it to do something about it?"