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A little grass is big shipyard problem

Nichols Brothers Boat Builders president Matt Nichols picks up a few strands of eelgrass washed onto the shore of Holmes Harbor. The company must transplant 16 strands of the plant before it is allowed to dredge a dock it uses to launch boats. - Matt Johnson
Nichols Brothers Boat Builders president Matt Nichols picks up a few strands of eelgrass washed onto the shore of Holmes Harbor. The company must transplant 16 strands of the plant before it is allowed to dredge a dock it uses to launch boats.
— image credit: Matt Johnson

Sixteen strands of grass. That is what stands in the way of launching a boat weighing more than 1,000 tons this weekend.

Last week, this grass -- eelgrass, actually -- proved to be enough to stop all that steel. Growing in front of a boat ramp used by Nichols Brothers Boat Builders to launch the ships the company builds, the small colony of eelgrass made its habitat untouchable.

Recognized as a habitat for the small fish upon which Pacific salmon feed, eelgrass is one of Washington's most highly protected plants. A resident of Holmes Harbor for a number of years, eelgrass had rarely been a problem for human activities.

But once it grew in front of the Nichols ramp -- a ramp that must be dredged periodically to allow boats to slip into the water -- it put a quick halt to the company's planned launch of a $10 million fire boat.

Matt Nichols, president of Nichols Brothers, said this week that plans to do the dredging and launch the boat were on schedule until the eelgrass was found. The discovery caused the state's Department of Fish and Wildlife to hold back on a dredging permit for the ramp, and sent Nichols calling everyone he could think off, including the governor's office, to find a way around the grass standing in the way of his boat.

"It took some arm twisting," Nichols said Monday. "Something's gone a little out of whack here."

Nichols said he does understand the situation. When he first came to Holmes Harbor as a child, it was a foul body of water. A coating of black slime from industrial activity and failed septic systems killed almost everything that should have been living on the bottom.

Since then, the harbor has gotten cleaner. Even the protected eelgrass is back in spades; there is so much, some washes up in front of the Nichols facility at the head of the harbor.

To get around the grass near the ramp, Nichols Brothers will uproot and replant the grass this week. It's not cheap work: Between consulting fees, future monitoring of nearby eelgrass beds and other costs, those few plants will run the company about $45,000.

But it will get him a permit. On Monday, Nichols said he expected to have a dredging permit in hand no later than today.

By the end of the week, Nichols expects to be able to dredge about 300 yards of material away from the end of the boat ramp, enough to launch the City of Los Angeles, the company's giant fireboat. Next spring, the company plans to launch an even larger boat, the 360-foot, 3,500-ton Empress of the North, a sternwheel paddleboat.

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