Fishermen running aground in Wheatley Harbour

Commercial fishermen in Wheatley want a permanent solution to an annual problem that sees fishing boats regularly getting stuck on a sand bar at the mouth of Wheatley Harbour.

Low water levels and sandbars to blame for ships frequently getting stuck

Fishermen in Wheatley are fed up with getting stuck on sandbars in Wheatley Harbour and want Ottawa to act. 2:17

Commercial fishermen in Wheatley want a permanent solution to an ongoing problem.

Fishing boats are regularly getting stuck on a sand bar at the mouth of Wheatley Harbour.

Fisherman say the problem is putting boats and people at risk of damage and injury, respectively.

Vito Figliomeni is a 30-year fisherman. He's been stuck before.

"It’s like trying to swim to shore and you can’t get there," Figliomeni said of being stuck.

He was stranded for 45 minutes during his ordeal. On Monday his son was stuck and had to be pulled off the sandbar.

He said he worries about the safety of boat crew members. There are typically five workers on a boat.

"You’re responsible for the guys on the boat, too, right?" he said."If you get a south wind and the boat gets stuck, you’re going to get the sea pounding into the boat and people can start rolling over and getting hurt."

Other fishermen fear boats will be damaged and diesel spills will happen if they strike the sand bar. Boats have been heading out to fish with half tanks of fuel so they don't ride low in the water.

Permanent solution may not exist

Dave Van Kesteren is the Conservative MP for the Chatham-Kent-Essex riding. He admitted the harbour needs to be dredged.

He also said it was supposed to be done once in October and once in November.

"The problem right now is the contractor hasn’t done the work," Van Kesteren said.

Ottawa's request for floating plant dredging and land-based dredging of the Wheatley Harbour closed Sept. 5 and Aug. 8, respectively and work was to begin almost immediately after the contract was awarded.

Figliomeni said the sandbar problem has become more frequent in the last 10 years. Fisherman no long want what they call Band-Aid solutions.

At the very least, Figliomeni said fishermen want the harbour dredged. They would, however, like a more permanent solution, such as a longer harbour or rocks added to stop sand from accumulating at the mouth.

"It’s just getting worse because the water is getting lower," he said.

Van Kesteren said a permanent solution is almost impossible.

"In the seven years I've been in office, I haven't heard a proposal that would be practical," he said.

Any permanent solution would affect habitat upstream and down, including Point Pelee National Park, Van Kesteren said.

"We’re almost stuck with the methods we have," he said.

The problem with the current method of dredging is that the harbour can be dredged one day and filled in by a storm the next, Van Kesteren said.

Fishermen want government help

Figliomeni said fishermen can't afford a fix themselves.

"It’s a lot of cost involved. No one has money to do it," he said. "That’s why we’re asking the government to step in and help, to make the lake safe for everyone to travel."

Van Kesteren called the problem "complex" and said a permanent solution, if one could be found, would require teamwork among "multi-layers of government."

Meanwhile, the Wheatley Harbour Authority has taken to warning fisherman of the danger of sandbars.

"When approaching the harbour entrance use caution because sand building occurs," reads a warning on the harbour's website. "Contact local fishers or a commercial fishing vessel ... for more information."

The Wheatley Harbour Authority claims the harbour "is home to the largest freshwater commercial fishing fleet in the world with approximately 45 fishing tugs."

Kevin Hill is a spokesperson with Fisheries and Oceans Canada.  He told CBC Windsor in a written statement that "historically low water levels combined with recent weather events have exacerbated silt and sand issues in and near the harbour this year."

Hill added the "contract for off-shore dredging of the approach channel was awarded last week and the contractor will begin work shortly, subject to weather conditions."