A boat owner who has had a mooring permit in New Castle's Little Harbor for more than 30 years went public last week with complaints about the harbor's management, sharply criticizing state oversight of moorings for which some people have been waiting decades to acquire.
A state harbor director responded by saying the boat owner's claims don't hold water and there are no plans to make changes.
Harbor moorings are cherished on the Seacoast, and there are hundreds of people waiting for current permit holders to give up their spots.
Bow resident Kevin Monahan, who has had a mooring permit at Little Harbor for 34 years, said many of the moorings are unlabeled, submerged, misused or rented against harbor regulations. He said a mooring next to his 32-foot sloop, Ticket, hasn't been used in 32 years.
Geno Marconi, director of ports and harbors for the Port of New Hampshire, said his staff has "found no evidence that anyone was renting a mooring" at Little Harbor, but acknowledged that enforcement is extremely difficult.
"There's no regulation that says you have to keep a boat on the mooring for any specific amount of time," Marconi said Friday. "Our experience is that it's an unenforceable situation - how do you prove whether or not someone has had a boat on a mooring? Unless you have somebody down there 24 hours a day, how can you tell?"
On Friday, Monahan cruised around Little Harbor, which he said contains about 150 state-managed moorings. People can access boats in Little Harbor from the private Wentworth by the Sea Marina or by rowing from a public ramp at nearby Odiorne Point State Park.
Many of the floating white balls marking mooring spots bobbed on open water, unused. To Monahan, a retired director of the New Hampshire Marine Patrol, the harbor looked empty.
"For the last several years, we've seen dwindling numbers of boats in here. This is the worst year yet," he said. "In a normal year, this would be filled."
There's no shortage of suitors for Little Harbor moorings. The top two people on the waitlist, according to the state port's website, have been waiting since 1993. The next 26 people have been waiting since the 1990s. Marconi said Friday that up to 260 people are waiting for spots at Little Harbor.
The top person on the mooring list for nearby Goat Island has been waiting since 1995. At Peirce Island in Portsmouth, the waitlist dates to 1989.
Marconi said his staff has investigated every complaint raised by Monahan and found no violations - including with the specific mooring next to Monahan's sloop.
Marconi said that particular permit holder's "applications are filled out and submitted on time, with the necessary documentation showing that he has a boat, and he makes the payment in accordance with the regulations.
"He's a real person with a real boat, and he has a mooring permit," Marconi added.
Monahan said having unregulated moorings poses risks, such as oversized boats that float haphazardly in rough weather, potentially into other boats, or crowds of boats vying for spots on weekends.
"It can become very chaotic in here on the weekends," he said. "It's a free-for-all."
Marconi said there are many reasons a boat owner might hold a permit for a mooring that he or she doesn't use frequently.
"I know a number of commercial fishermen that tie their boat up at (Commercial Fish Pier in Portsmouth) or a private facility, and they have a mooring, and they keep that mooring valid in the event of a change in their ability to go to a dock," he said.
Marconi said some fishermen also keep moorings on Sagamore Creek as "storm moorings," or safe places to keep boats in bad weather, while owners of waterfront homes with private docks might also keep public moorings in case they lose or sell the waterfront property.
"It's probably impossible to prove whether someone has or has not utilized a mooring," Marconi said.
"What I'm after is stepped-up enforcement," he said. "The missing part is a requirement that you use your mooring."
He cited harbor policies in Maine towns such as York and Kittery that designate minimum uses of moorings - at least once every three years in Kittery and at least 14 days a season in York - and require permit holders to provide proof to harbor staff of that use.
Marconi said those policies aren't feasible in New Hampshire. In Maine, he said, mooring fields are controlled by municipalities that only have to manage "very finite, controlled areas" that aren't comparable to the number of moorings in New Hampshire's tidal waters.
Marconi said an advisory council appointed by the governor meets once a month to discuss harbor-related issues.
"We are constantly reviewing our policies in regards to moorings," he said. "There are ongoing discussions about mooring permits and boat registrations. ... As of right now, we have no plans to make any changes to the process."
Monahan said he knows he risks becoming a pariah in Little Harbor by rocking the boat, but said the positive changes he hopes to effect would outweigh possible glares he might receive on Wentworth's upscale dock.
"It's hard for me to sit here and see what's going on and not get involved," he said.