Nantucket Beach Erosion | A Disappearing Island
“This is the hot zone,” he says. “It’s maybe one of the top three most important pieces of bottom in southeastern Massachusetts. When people look for big fish in big numbers, they come to Sankaty. The guys from Chatham, they could go anywhere in Cape Cod Bay, but they decide to come here. I’m not trying to downplay the situation. [The homeowners] would be screwed. I’ll feel bad for their summer houses, but I’ll also feel really bad if my fishing business goes to crap.”
That cobble will be destroyed isn’t up for debate. Between the dredging work and the heightened littoral drift that will result from giving the ocean more material to feed on, SBPF’s own scientists have predicted as much, prompting the group to offer compensation for lost wages and a project to re-create the destroyed habitat. What’s contested is the estimated amount (105 acres) and its significance. Even a minor shift in the quality of hard bottom along these waters could have a detrimental effect on an island where the last vestige of a once-great fishing community is now an overcrowded charter industry.
Which is another way of saying: This story is about more than just sand and water. It’s about identity: about who’s going to have a say over the very force that built this island up and now in another form is in the process of taking it away. To locals, a project like SBPF’s is a brazen display of wealth that violates the code of adaptability that’s required to live in such a vulnerable environment. It’s another signal that Nantucket no longer creates fortunes — it just attracts them.
“We’ve changed from a tourist destination to a place for summer residents,” says longtime fisherman Bobby DeCosta. “Fishermen don’t have the clout they used to. Merchants don’t, either. Teachers, department heads — regular people can’t afford to live here. I really wonder what this place will look like in 10 years.”
Eldridge wonders that, too. He’s back in his truck, taking a slow spin around Codfish Park. In the early 1990s, a series of nor’easters rolled in, eating up close to 200 feet of beach and dune. Even more dramatic was the toll it took on a row of beachfront houses, forcing their removal, and in one unforgettable moment taking one home out to sea before dispensing with it. A few of Eldridge’s childhood friends lived in those houses, and he slows his truck down to a crawl as he nears their former sites. “It’s so weird,” he keeps saying.
On the road out of Codfish Park, he stops and motions to a tall cedar-shingled house just to the right. On its side is a sundial that his father, a local volunteer fireman, rescued years ago when the building that had stood here burned to the ground. When the home was rebuilt, Eldridge’s father surprised the owners with what he’d salvaged.
“It’s little pieces that make up the whole community,” says Eldridge. “I’m not trying to belittle the homeowners up on the bluff; their memories of ‘Sconset and their lawn parties and everything else are very important. It’s all part of the tradition, and memory, and history. Unfortunately, some board somewhere has to make a decision as to which is more important — whose memories are more important, whose way of life is more important.”
On a late afternoon in autumn, a modest assortment of residents, town officials, and outside consultants file into a small auditorium in Nantucket High School. The meeting, a public hearing between SBPF’s hired team of engineers and scientists and the seven-member Conservation Commission, is the third of many. What the commission decides will determine how and when the Baxter Road residents may move forward to secure local and state permits.
That’s assuming, of course, that the nourishment project even happens. High respect for nature on Nantucket is matched by an equally skeptical view of any attempt to manipulate it. “It’s sort of an old battle,” says Peter Brace, a reporter for the Nantucket Independent. “[Out here] we’re so close to the elements and so close to the ocean and the environment that we’re all environmentally aware. Everyone has an opinion.”
That certainly extends to the ‘Sconset project. On this night, unconvinced residents fire away at the SBPF team. The largest contingent consists of Josh Eldridge and a dozen or so other fishermen, who sit in the back, with arms folded, as they take turns castigating SBPF on its fish-research methods and projections. “At the end of the day,” one fisherman says, “you only came up with the worst proposal.” Their reactions mirror those of most year-rounders, who argue that the logical solution is for the homeowners to just move their houses.