Abandoned & Derelict Boats

Abandoned Boats | Stefan Ganz from Getty Images

We have all seen abandoned boats. We shake our heads in dismay at the irresponsibility or wince as we consider the loss someone else encountered, while we diligently navigate our own vessels to avoid them or the hazard they perhaps encountered. Almost all coastal and inland waterways harbor the remains of boats that were victims of catastrophic weather, grounding events, the passage of time or negligent ownership.

Abandoned and derelict vessels (ADVs) are increasingly problematic in our nation’s waterways. Marine wreckage can take years to degrade, leaching fuel, toxic chemicals and debris into the surrounding ecosystem and creating navigational hazards. While the myriad of concerns about ADVs are easy to recognize, the solution to reducing their existence is complex.

Some circumstances, such as hurricanes, result in substantial increases in submerged or damaged vessels at anchor, moorings or groundings on shore. According to the Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC), last year’s Hurricane Ian left more than 700 derelict boats in its wake.

While a robust surge in the boat market has been great for the industry, the sheer number of boat owners means we can expect a record number of vessels aging out of their productive years. Boats that are at their end of life, whether due to time or neglect, are potentially at risk of becoming ADVs. Owners of boats, that are no longer used or cared for, may find walking away an easier option than properly disposing of the vessel.

Removing ADVs can be costly and complicated. Boat removal can cost $10,000 or more, depending on the size, location and whether it is afloat or submerged. If the vessel is actively leaking fuel, oil or chemicals, that cost increases for remediation.

In addition to the technical and financial resources required for removal, local laws concerning these vessels can vary. In some states, the authority to remove vessels is divided among several agencies, leaving some structures waiting to be assigned to an agency.

Virginia resident Mike Provost found this to be true in his state when he tried to locate the proper authority to deal with an abandoned boat he frequently saw when visiting a park off Lynnhaven River. He took matters into his own hands and created a GoFundMe page to cover the removal cost, and eventually started the nonprofit Vessel Disposal and Reuse Foundation to continue providing removal services in the area.

Abandoned Boats | asbe from Getty Images Signature

While the complexity of the ADV situation may be daunting, many states are seriously addressing this maritime crisis. New regulations, funding and initiatives are being stood up in response to the increase in ADVs.

One example is the work being done in Florida, where its 2022-2023 budget allocated $8.2 million toward derelict boat removal along with $11.7 million from federal funding. The FWC lead a prevention effort by establishing a Vessel Turn-In Program, which provides a pathway for owners to remove at-risk vessels before they become derelict.

Once a boat sinks, the cost and effort for removal increases considerably. Many states currently work with local authorities to identify vessels at risk of dereliction or abandonment, and offer programs and grants to support removal and disposal efforts.

Salvaged vessels deposited in local landfills are quickly becoming an environmental crisis as landfill space is limited and decomposition is slow. For many years, yachts and pleasure craft were designed and built without considering disposal requirements at the end of life.

Fiberglass, the primary material for boat hulls since the 1950s, is resistant to decomposition and difficult to recycle. Increasing environmental awareness propelled the effort to identify a sustainable disposal method and provide a solution to prevent the cumulating waste. The Rhode Island Marine Trades Association Foundation (RIMTAF) is leading the way in the United States with a successful pilot project that repurposed end-of-life fiberglass hulls into a resource for cement manufacturers.

As part of its Marine Debris Program, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is partnering with RIMTAF to expand the pilot project and coordinate with other states and localities looking to recycle discarded vessel hulls. As part of this effort, RIMTA also developed an End-of-Life Vessel Material Management Guide to address the most relevant questions and concerns shared by vessel owners, marine businesses and waste managers. Several states are now engaged at various stages in establishing recycling programs.

Help Clear the Waterways

Boat owners can help rid our waterways of ADVs and the hazards they impose. The NOAA Marine Debris Program created an ADV information hub on its website. This hub is a central source of information regarding abandoned and derelict vessels. It explains how each coastal state handles abandoned and derelict vessels and brings together information to create a user-friendly resource. You can access information on local legislation, policies, funding and programs to address the problem, as well as links to relevant publications, case studies and legal reviews. The hub also allows boaters to report ADVs in their area.

If you encounter an abandoned or derelict vessel and believe it’s a potential hazard to navigation or leaking oil or other hazardous materials, contact your local authorities or a state emergency response or environmental health agency. You can also notify the U.S. Coast Guard National Response Center at 1-800-424-8802.

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