COAST CITIES — This summer, a long-planned sand dredge designed to widen beaches for tourists and residents was postponed by nearly two months from its original completion date.
Many lobstermen are worried about the delay, to say the least.
“I was never in favor, but if they had to do this project, spring or summer would have been a much better time,” said Wayne Campbell, a lobsterman who docks his boat at Oceanside Harbor.
SANDAG (San Diego Association of Government) kicked off the $22.5 million sand project about four weeks ago at Imperial Beach.
Once the project is complete in two months, 1.4 million cubic yards of sand will have been placed on beaches from Imperial Beach to Oceanside.
Originally the project was slated for late summer, but was then delayed until October through early November for North County beaches.
That means the sand influx will overlap with the peak of lobster season, which starts Sept. 27 and ends in March.
According to a SANDAG monitoring report, lobster is the most valuable species for the local fishing industry.
In the fall and winter, larger and more frequent waves move sand offshore. Campbell said the newly deposited sand from the replenishment project will wash off the beach and bury nearshore reefs and kelp beds where lobsters live, displacing them and endangering larva.
“Without the reefs, there are less lobster to catch and they aren’t as predictable,” Campbell said.
While difficult to estimate, Campbell expects his income to drop 15 or 20 percent this season due to the sand-replenishment project.
It wouldn’t be the first time a beach-replenishment project has decreased catches, Campbell said.
He blames a particularly poor 2001-02 season on the last SANDAG beach-replenishment project in 2001 that placed 2.1 million cubic yards of sand on local beaches.
According to a SANDAG environmental impact report, lobster catches reported by the Oceanside port, one data point, fell from about 57,000 in 2001 to 40,000 the next year. The report states the sand dump may have played a role in the decline, but notes it’s difficult to isolate because of an array of variables influencing lobster season.
Because catches rebounded in 2003, the report concluded the 2001 beach-replenishment project likely didn’t have a longterm effect.
The report also explains the 2001 project may have adversely affected lobster larva, though not significantly and only for a brief period.
In response, Campbell said it’s commonly accepted among fishermen that large dredge projects hurt fishing, especially ones as large as SANDAG’s. He added, “Even hurting one season is too much.”
And Campbell believes this year’s SANDAG project will have a greater impact than it had in 2001.
The 2001 sand project took place from April to September, avoiding the peak of lobster season.
But with the current project in North County, the sand is scheduled to be pumped from early October to early December at Cardiff State Beach, Moonlight Beach, Batiquitos Lagoon, as well as at heavily fished areas at north and south Carlsbad beaches and the southern end of Oceanside’s beachfront.
“The first few months of lobster fishing are the best,” Campbell said. “Even three or four weeks of delay make a big difference.”
SANDAG awarded the bid for the project to Great Lakes Dredge & Dock because they have a larger dredge and could complete the project in half the time.
The company was due to start the sand project in August, but had equipment problems at a Virginia site, postponing the San Diego project until September.
The large dredge and other equipment will be at each North County site for a week or two. As such, lobstermen worry dredging operations, including pipes and boats, could temporarily limit where lobstermen can fish and potentially damage traps that are already set.
An estimated 10,000 to 12,000 lobster traps are set during peak lobster season, according to SANDAG’s environmental draft report from last year.
In another section, the report advises: “In an effort to reduce the impact on commercial fishing, sand placement would occur between March 25 and September 15, to the extent feasible, so as to not adversely affect lobster season.”
Shelby Tucker, SANDAG’s project manager of the beach replenishment said they have conducted considerable outreach to let lobstermen know about the project.
Based on feedback from them, she said SANDAG has asked Great Lakes Dredge & Dock to revise transit routes at some beaches in order to minimize the impact on lobster fishing.
“We tried to accommodate the lobstermen as much as we can,” Tucker said. “The other thing to remember is that there are lot of moving parts to this. Lobstermen aren’t the only group we had to accommodate.
“We had to work with city governments and orchestrate things around environmental groups who are concerned about various wildlife, like grunion season,” she added.
Peak spawning season for grunion is from March to early June.
Tucker touted the benefits of the sand replenishment, including saving homes threatened by coastal erosion and giving people more sand area at beaches, a factor that’s important for tourism.
The current beach-replenishment project was originally scheduled to take place from April to October, according to Tucker. Some have suggested pushing back the project to next spring. But that would cost millions at this point, Tucker said.
Ted Pendleton, a lobsterman who fishes from San Clemente to La Jolla, said he wishes the sand dump wasn’t approved in the first place.
Although it’s difficult to determine, his business could experience a 20 percent decline this year as a result of the beach replenishment.
He questioned why sand is being placed on beaches in the fall and early winter.
“The big waves will wash it away before it settles,” Pendleton said.
In addition to lobster, other marine life stand to be impacted, he said.
“Almost all underwater life relatively close to the shore will be affected — an entire ecosystem,” Pendelton said. “Everyone should be more concerned with what’s underneath the water, not just what’s next to it.”