My View: Ecosystem Health in Cotuit

This opinion piece was published in The Barnstable Patriot (online 2/22/21 and expected print edition 2/26/21):

Photo Credit: Ann Luongo

I am writing in response to an op-ed titled “My View: Peers and Piers” by Zenas Crocker published on Feb. 11, 2021. I would like to thank Mr. Crocker for explaining the reasons that Barnstable Clean Water Coalition (BCWC) supports a proposal to construct a private pier adjacent to Cotuit’s Town Dock. (The proposed project’s location is in a congested area where existing zoning laws prohibit the construction of new docks.). However, I have some lingering questions and comments after reading this article.

In the February 11th op-ed, Mr. Crocker states “many people believe that docks are harmful” to shellfish habitat. I think it’s important to note that many people believe this to be true because many independently funded, peer-reviewed studies have concluded this to be true. I agree with Mr. Crocker’s point that controversy exists around this issue, however, it is not grounded in “belief.”

Mr. Crocker notes two potential benefits of docks: their ability to provide a safe haven for shellfish and their potential use to grow oysters that filter and improve water quality. As Mr. Crocker notes, docks can “become a refuge for shellfish” because commercial and recreational shell-fishermen tend to avoid harvesting around docks. However, it is also important to consider that in order for shellfish to take refuge under a dock, the environment where the dock is located must be healthy enough for shellfish to live.

Mr. Crocker references an oyster gardening program currently utilized in Chesapeake Bay. This initiative seems like an incredibly resourceful and creative way that dock owners in Maryland and Virginia contribute to improved water quality by cultivating oysters underneath their docks. As described in the Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s website www.cbf.org, oysters are farmed for the sole purpose of filtering water, not for human consumption. The program requires a year-round commitment from dock owners. Oyster cages must be regularly cleaned and tended to- even during winter months. Just like any garden, it is not a “set it and forget it” undertaking. It would be very interesting to see if a program like this would be effective and sustainable here on Cape Cod. However, is it necessary that new docks be constructed for this purpose? Why not pilot this idea using existing docks?

The article then describes several reasons that BCWC supports the aforementioned dock proposal in Cotuit. My understanding of six of the stated reasons and my lingering questions are as follows:

Reason 1: The BCWC supports this proposal because the applicant has committed to install two NitROEâ septic systems at his property. These nitrogen-reducing septic systems effectively remove nitrogen so wastewater can be safely returned to the environment. Nitrogen loading is a daunting environmental issue to our Cape Cod watershed. NitROEâ septic systems may be an integral part to the nitrogen loading solution. However, in this specific instance, the applicant’s installation of a new septic system is not relevant to the construction of a dock. The new septic system is related to home renovations that are also occurring at the property.

Reason 2: The BCWC supports this proposal because the applicant has offered to fund a future BCWC study involving the “restoration of a sizable area of the bay’s bottom to determine if growing eel grass and native shellfish is feasible.” As Mr. Crocker notes, the “pilot project would be expensive and complicated” and the “permitting process would be arduous and costly.” What is the feasibility that this study will become a reality? What is the expected time frame?

Reason 3: The BCWC supports this proposal because the applicant “has offered to replace a significant number” of existing moorings with “new, less destructive” models. Where will these potential mooring replacements occur? Does the applicant own these moorings? Does permitting/ approval need to be granted for this exchange? Are the moorings located at the site of the proposed dock?

Reason 4: The BCWC supports this proposal because the applicant has “offered to provide an easement for a bathroom and office at the Cotuit Town Dock.” I think all would agree that a public rest room at the Cotuit Town Dock would be a welcome upgrade. Has the Town been approached with this offer? Where would the septic system for the potential restroom be located? What type of system would it be? Does the town have the funds to transform this offer into a reality? Does the Town have the funds to pay for the upkeep of this hypothetical restroom? Again, what is the expected time frame for this potential project?

Reason 5: The BCWC supports this proposal because the applicant has offered a space on the dock for the Cotuit fire boat. The Cotuit FD should have a permanent place for their boat. However, a solution to this problem must exist that is separate from the construction of this one dock. Please visit www.preservecotuit.org to read more about this issue.

Reason 6: The BCWC supports this proposal because adding a dock will increase the assessed value of the property. Mr. Crocker notes, “with the Town about to embark on a major wastewater project, every assessed dollar counts.” Is the implication of this statement that increased tax revenue resulting from this project would be ear-marked for Barnstable’s future sewer expansion project?

After reading the Feb. 11 article, it seems to me that BCWC supports the many “add-ons” that have been packaged within this proposal, not necessarily the construction of a dock in a congested area where current zoning regulations prohibit new docks. In addition, many of the “add-ons” are hypotheticals and not actualized at this point in time (i.e. a potential restroom, a future scientific study, etc.) Most of the reasons listed for BCWC’s support do not address the environmental impacts that the construction of a new dock in that specific location might have. Maybe this is what Mr. Crocker meant when he described the need to “balance the relative damage” done to the marine environment by boats? Is it BCWC’s position that in order to benefit from the (hypothetical) “add-ons” included in this proposal, the residents of Cotuit must accept a new dock that existing zoning regulations prohibit and that (many would argue) will have a long-term detrimental impact to Cotuit Harbor’s marine environment?

I whole-heartedly support BCWC’s mission to educate, monitor, mitigate and advocate for our watershed. I value this organization’s commitment to conservation, and I think Cape Cod residents are lucky to have the BCWC as an environmental ally. I also believe that a pathway to repair our fragile coastal ecosystem exists that is not conditional on the construction of new docks. Many of the generous offers included in this proposal are future hypotheticals; however, the construction of this new dock would be an immediate reality.

A year-round Cotuit resident, the author is a chemistry instructor at Massachusetts Maritime Academy and 2008 graduate of the University of Rhode Island Graduate School of Oceanography.

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