Northshore Harbormasters Association

Harbormasters: Boaters aren't the problem

It is unlikely that the flotilla of small boats in and around Salem Harbor is causing the contamination that forced the closing of several Salem beaches, area harbormasters said. "I don't feel it's the boats," said Marblehead Harbormaster Warner Hazel.

Beverly Harbormaster Daniel McPherson said if boats dumping holding tanks of sewage were the problem, it would be felt up and down the coast.

Test results have come back clean for beaches in Beverly and Marblehead, according to local health officials. Although no one has pointed the finger at boaters, Salem officials said Monday that the pollution that shut down seven beaches last weekend might be from a "sea source."

As a precaution, Mayor Stanley Usovicz said he planned to ask the state to make Salem Harbor a no-discharge zone for boats. He also directed the harbormaster to operate the city pump boat seven days a week instead of the usual three-day weekend. The city boat pumps waste for free from boat holding tanks.

That same pump boat, however, was out of service for a long stretch last summer, when there were fewer beach closings. That has left officials scratching their heads.

"Last year the pump boat was down and we didn't have a problem, and this year the pump boat is running and we do have a problem," said Salem Harbormaster Peter Gifford. "So you can't just blame the boats."

At the same time, however, area harbormasters point out that there are a large number of boats in Salem Harbor, and that most city pump boats operate only on weekends.

Between Salem, Marblehead, Beverly and Danvers, there are nearly 6,000 boats at moorings and slips, according to figures from area communities.

Right in Salem Harbor, there are about 1,400 Salem boats and another 800 Marblehead boats on the west side.

But not all the boats have holding tanks -- one harbormaster guessed that about half do, all of them larger boats -- and only a fraction of the boats are in use at one time. 

The pump boats are busy, but they handle only a relatively small number of boats. On the busy weekend of July 14-15, when the tall ship Friendship was commissioned in Salem Harbor, the Salem pump boat did 20 boats. Marblehead pumps an average of 20 boats a week in Salem Harbor.

The rules for dumping sewage also are confusing, some officials say. Raw sewage must be dumped three miles or more at sea. But waste in official marine sanitation devices, which many new boats have, can be discharged close to shore, according to federal regulations.

Although the harbormasters concede they don't know what boaters do and don't do, they believe most boaters are responsible and are not contributing to Salem's beach pollution. "What you have over in Salem, I think, is an isolated incident," said Hazel, the Marblehead harbormaster.


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