Harry Schiffman honored for decades of fighting for Dare's watermen
On the cusp of a long-awaited breakthrough in securing the navigability of Oregon and Hatteras Inlets, Wanchese resident Harry Schiffman pondered the decades-long quest to achieve that goal.
"People who aren't on the water in our inlets don't understand what a miraculous opportunity we have set before us,” he told the Sentinel. “It's a gigantic step in the right direction, but we're not done yet."
The breakthrough came in May when the state legislature earmarked $15 million for the purchase of a shallow draft hopper dredge that will be based and primarily used in Dare County. With contract details being worked out, Greenville-based EJE Recycling will own and operate the dredge, with one-third of operating costs being paid by Dare County and two-thirds paid by the state.
Honored on Oct. 11 as an "unsung hero" by the Outer Banks Chamber of Commerce — which gave him its 2018 For the Love of the OBX Award — Schiffman said: "Sometimes in life we don't have a choice about things, and one of those things of mine was my love for the Outer Banks." He quickly added that "many, many people" worked together to improve Dare County's inlets and he accepted the award "on their behalf."
For three decades, Schiffman has been a relentless and effective force for stabilizing Dare County's two major commercial inlets. Serving on the Oregon Inlet and Waterways Commission and the later Oregon Inlet Users Association — and then co-founding the Oregon Inlet Task Force — Schiffman has been the point man in the county’s fight for its watermen and commercial fishing industry.
It's been a long and daunting process. Formed during a hurricane in 1846, Oregon inlet has experienced repeated shoaling and massive shifting of sands caused by numerous storms through the years. Schiffman says the need for the construction of jetties began to clearly come into focus about 100 years later — and he points back to a 1949 Virginian Pilot story that describes the need for them.
In 1970, Schiffman recalls, Congress authorized jetties at Oregon Inlet, with the support of the Department of the Interior and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. But a "permitting battle" soon followed, and Schiffman says a significant "change of heart" occurred around 1978, when the Department of the Interior announced that no specific transfer of lands had been provided for. Schiffman and others attribute much of this backpedaling to environmentalists' opposition to jetties amid concerns that the structures would have a significant impact on fish larvae.
As recently as 2013, efforts to authorize jetties continued with the N.C. General Assembly's creation of the Oregon Inlet Land Acquisition Task Force to explore options for acquiring Oregon Inlet and the real property adjacent to it. The efforts, once again, stalled.
Schiffman is adamant that the only truly effective long-term solution is the construction of jetties at both ends of Oregon Inlet and a sand-bypass system. "But we tried that for thirty five years," he told the Sentinel. "They kept telling us to dredge the inlet." Acting on that, steps were taken to secure regular dredging by the Army Corps to "proactively" open the inlet and keep it open. Now the new dredge project represents an important milestone in the efforts to keep the inlet navigable.
A love of Dare County
Schiffman was born in Greensboro, where his father ran a jewelry business. The family also had a small farm just outside of town. But Schiffman says that through his mother he had roots on the Outer Banks that would eventually draw him back here.
"My mother's from Manteo," he says. "She says the first time I crawled as a baby, I crawled east, and she knew where I was heading. I was heading home, to Dare County."
Schiffman's great-grandfather, William T. Brinkley, was the first sheriff of Dare County. His great-uncle, W.C. Brinkley, was one of the five local men who helped haul the Wright brothers' plane from its hangar to the wooden launching track in December 1903 and witnessed their historic first flight.
From his youth, Schiffman has had two great loves — exercise and the ocean. With hours to kill after elementary school, he would make his way to the nearby YMCA, swimming and playing basketball and ping pong.
Later, playing football as a 110-pound defensive back, Schiffman found himself on the receiving end of repeated jolts from a 225-pound tackle. When the high school swim coach asked if he would be interested in joining the team, Schiffman recalls saying: "That sounds better than getting steamrolled every day."
Active for many years in the Dare County Senior Games competition organized by the Baum Senior Center, Schiffman has put Dare County's swimmers on the map, winning multiple gold medals in the North Carolina Senior Games State Championships.
"We all make priorities and some things have to give," he says. "But I always tell young people, 'Don't stop exercising. Make it a priority. There's a health benefit in it for you.'"
After graduating from UNC Chapel Hill, Schiffman did a six-month stint of active duty in the Coast Guard, then served in the reserves for six years. Following his active duty, he went back to Greensboro, working with his father and brother in the jewelry business. But Schiffman eventually sold his share of the business to his brother so he could move to the Outer Banks. Family members wanted to know what he planned to do there. "It doesn't make any difference," he replied. "If I have to dig ditches, I'll dig ditches. I want to live out there."
At the same time, Schiffman met his wife, Lila, who was visiting from Pittsburgh, at a party in Greensboro. Living in Manteo, Schiffman was given some very specific advice from Manteo boat builder Vernon Davis: "You need to get into the dry stack boat business." Schiffman soon built the Salty Dawg Marina in Manteo and went into the dry stack business. He later sold the property, which became Marshes Light.
Schiffman also raced runabouts built by Davis and his brother Ralph. But his true mentor was legendary commercial fisherman Captain Willie Etheridge. "He was my inspiration,” Schiffman says. “He was probably the most successful commercial fisherman ever to come out of Wanchese…He was just a wonderful, caring person. He would give the shirt off his back to anyone in need."
Schiffman later went into the boat towing business with TowBoat U.S., helping recreational boats needing assistance in an area that spans Oregon Inlet and the Albemarle, Pamlico, Roanoke, Currituck and Croatan Sounds. He owns and operates three boats — a 40-foot former Coast Guard utility boat, a 26-foot World Cat and a 20-foot Shamrock. Together, he says, the vessels give him the flexibility to handle "just about any situation" that is not life-threatening.
Attending his first meeting of the Oregon Inlet and Waterways Commission (OIWC) in 1982, Schiffman learned about its work trying to stabilize Oregon and Hatteras Inlets. When the meeting was opened for public comment, Schiffman suggested the commission hire a professional lobbyist to "go ahead and get this done." After the meeting, Schiffman says OIWC Chairman Buddy Davis told him, "You're taking my place as chairman. I'm out of here."
That marked the beginning of Schiffman's decades of researching and fighting on behalf of the inlets. He was later instrumental in starting the Oregon Inlet Users Association to continue the fight. During the shoaling crisis that effectively closed Oregon Inlet in 2013, Schiffman worked behind the scenes with commercial fishing giant Mikey Daniels and Pirate's Cove Marina manager Jim Tobin to start the Oregon Inlet Task Force.
"We formed the task force in order to really start taking action," he says. "And we did."
Made aware of Oregon Inlet's ongoing crisis, State Senators Bill Cook, Harry Brown and Michael Lee sponsored a bill to create the Shallow Draft Navigation Channel Dredging and Lake Maintenance Fund. Passed in May 2015, the new law reserved $4 million for dredging Oregon Inlet, to be matched by non-state dollars.
Dare County then contracted with the Army Corps of Engineers to "proactively" dredge Oregon Inlet until it was clear and could be maintained. Now three years into this project, Schiffman says, the county saw great progress in the first year. Then, with a 25% reduction in dredging time authorized by the Corps the second year, he says, "We didn't make any headway. We just stayed about the same."
With an even larger reduction in the Corps' dredging in the third year, Schiffman says, the inlet has begun to worsen once again. "We began to say, 'We've got to do something for ourselves and stop relying on the Corps.'...[The Corps] covers the Atlantic from Maine to Texas, but just doesn't have enough assets to meet our needs."
The new hopper dredge should be a major step toward meeting those needs. And Schiffman lauds Cook for his work on the legislative effort that created it, declaring, “We owe Senator Cook and his legislative aide, Jordan Hennessy, an incredible amount of commendation for what they've done to help coastal North Carolina.”
But, as this battle-tested veteran of many inlet dramas knows and says, “We’re not done yet.”