WELLFLEET — Throwing its weight behind the Balaenidae of Cape Cod Bay, the Army Corps of Engineers on Dec. 30 rejected the town’s last-ditch request for a two-week extension of its harbor dredging project permits.
Barges with tugboats, like the ones being used for the dredging, are considered a major threat to right whales, said Charles “Stormy” Mayo, senior scientist and director of the right whale ecology program at the Center for Coastal Studies in Provincetown.
Last year, more than half the world’s remaining population of North Atlantic right whales (then 356) made appearances in the bay. This year’s whale season, said Mayo, is just beginning — on Dec. 11, a CCS aerial survey team spotted one right whale in the middle of the bay.
Also near the middle of the bay is the Cape Cod Bay Disposal Site, the new home of about 192,000 cubic yards of gunk from Wellfleet Harbor’s floor. Dredging season lasts annually from Oct. 1 to Dec. 31.
Wellfleet’s comprehensive three-year dredging plan actually adds up to round-the-clock digging, scooping, and dumping for precisely nine months, with this year’s first three kicked off by the Army Corps’s October arrival to clear the harbor’s federal channel.
That work allowed the Cashman Company’s indelicate equipment — each barge measures 255 feet — entry into the harbor’s town-owned crannies. Their federal channel work took just 10 weeks. Which allowed the town an opportunity for piggyback dredging, paying Cashman for the remaining two weeks of planned work to get a head start on the town’s silt.
The dredging task force estimated in September that they’d manage 56,000 cubic yards of piggyback dredging. By October, they’d refined that number to 48,000. But as 2020 wound down, that goal seemed less and less achievable.
Bad weather and the finesse required to dredge the harbor’s tighter corners slowed Cashman’s crew down. By the final permitted week of its project, Cashman logged just under 36,000 cubic yards of removed dredgestuffs, leaving Wellfleet with 397,000 to address over the next two seasons.
Hence the town’s year-end Hail Mary, which would have stretched the dredging season to Jan. 15. But that would have meant continued barge traffic as the whale season arrived.
Dredging task force co-chair Christopher Allgeier said he knew Wellfleet’s extension effort had been a long shot.
“It’s okay,” he said. “We’re coming back to dredge next year anyway.”