The tide is out in Blue Hill Harbor on Tuesday morning. Federal officials recently recommended dredging the harbor to make it more accessible. Credit: Ethan Genter / BDN

BLUE HILL, Maine — The downtown dock in Blue Hill Harbor has almost everything a commercial fisherman could need from a small wharf. It’s protected from the elements, has a crane to help with heavy loads, and boasts electricity and ample parking.

But for all but a few hours a day, it can’t be accessed. At low tide, the water recedes out so far that the inner harbor turns into a mudflat, preventing fishermen and other boaters from getting to the wharf outside a 90-minute window before and after high tide.

That could soon change. In a report issued at the end of last month, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers recommended dredging a six-foot deep, more than 5,000-foot-long channel to the town wharf to make the inner harbor more accessible. The blessing from the federal agency could put the idea of deepening the harbor, which has been debated for more than 100 years, finally into motion.

It won’t come cheap though.

The project is estimated to cost about $3.4 million and if the town of Blue Hill wants the 71,500 cubic yards of silt and sand dug up, it will need to pitch in an estimated $684,400. 

The idea of dredging the harbor goes back all the way to the late 1800s. Surveys and studies in 1891, 1911 and 1951 all found that changes to the harbor were not justified. The corps now says dredging will make boating safer and more efficient from the town landing, alleviate delays to the commercial vessels and eliminate groundings at lower tides.

The town has considered the idea almost a dozen times before. Now it will hold a meeting with the corps after the April town meeting to discuss the report, according to town officials. Costs for the project have gone up since the most recent effort started several years ago and residents will have to weigh out the price tag with the potential benefit, Select Board member Scott Miller said.

“We as a community have to figure out what we want, if anything,” he said. “Before the end of summer, I expect we will have some sort of public meeting to discuss it in detail.”

A prior study from 1972 recommended a similar project, but was put off because of lack of local funding, according to the corps report. Since then, the commercial fishing fleet has grown exponentially. Though still small compared to neighboring ports like Stonington, Blue Hill’s went from seven vessels in the 1970s to about 50 now.

Because the inner harbor is inaccessible for most of the day, those boats are spread out to several small coves and harbors along Blue Hill Bay. A majority work out of the South Blue Hill wharf, but that landing is much more exposed to winds and waves and has none of the services that are at the downtown wharf in the harbor, according to the corps.

South Blue Hill is also at capacity and, in the summer, it’s not uncommon to see boats lining up for sometimes hours at a time to offload their catch.

Making the inner harbor and town wharf accessible at lower tides could create a central location for the fleet that’s closer to services and supplies, attract a stable group of buyers for the catch and allow for nearly year round operations from the protected harbor, according to the corps report.

The area is also popular with recreational boaters and kayakers, said Harbormaster Denny Robertson, though the corps’ report kept to only the commercial boats.

Robertson, now in his 80s, said the town has considered dredging the harbor more than 10 times in the past. Even if the town went forward with this proposal, which includes a turning basin adjacent to the town wharf, the town would likely need another float system to make the most of the new channel, he said.

Buying those would be in addition to paying for the dredging and comes as the town is looking at several other expensive projects.

“There are still some other big ticket things that people want,” Miller said. “We just need to be cognizant that there are other demands on the town’s resources.”

The report did not give a timetable for the dredging and a corps spokesperson did not immediately respond to a request for comment. In December, the corps said that after the report was approved internally, it would present Blue Hill with a partnership agreement to move the project forward.

Correction: An earlier version of this report misstated the estimated cost for Blue Hill’s portion of the proposed dredging project.