In 2008, after the world economy took a nosedive, the boating industry faced several challenges. One of the most serious was an epidemic of abandoned or derelict vessels (ADVs). Many boaters in sudden financial straits were panicked about continuing boat payments or maintenance and dockage costs. Perhaps intimidated by the glut of used vessels suddenly hitting the market, some took the “easy” way out—opening seacocks in less-traveled waterways, or simply rowing away from the headache bobbing at the mooring.
ADVs continue to be a problem, especially in Florida, which has the greatest number of registered boats and is regularly hit by tropical storms and hurricanes. Severe weather events can rip vessels from docks and moorings, inflicting expensive damage and sometimes sinking boats.
Is there a sadder sight than a derelict craft? Half submerged, listing, blistered, green at the waterline—they are hard for any boat lover to see. But ADVs are not just heartbreakers and eyesores; they pose a slew of serious problems. Partially or fully submerged, they are navigational hazards that endanger other boats. And the longer a vessel remains derelict, the greater the likelihood of damage to the environment.
As abandoned vessels degrade in the marine environment, they release a host of toxic pollutants. The most obvious risks are leaching diesel, gas and other system fluids that contaminate the water. Decaying bottom paint and batteries are also toxic. They release chromium, copper, lead, mercury and zinc into the water, contaminating seafloor sediment. Organisms living there ingest these heavy metals, and the toxins are then passed up the food chain.
A sunken boat may also chafe the seafloor, disrupting grasses and reefs, and affecting fishes and other organisms. Contact with bottom structure more rapidly wears hull materials, releasing more toxic chemicals as the hulls decompose.
The U.S. Coast Guard, Environmental Protection Agency, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) are all involved in responses to derelict boats. NOAA responds to abandoned and derelict vessels through the National Marine Sanctuaries Act “when a vessel is within or threatens resources within a sanctuary.” The Corps of Engineers may become involved when a vessel sinks in a navigable channel. The Coast Guard is designated as the on-scene coordinator to oversee federal response efforts for the containment, removal and disposal of oil or another hazardous substance released into the marine environment. And FEMA is involved after natural disasters.
However, the laws surrounding responsibility for ADV removals vary widely from state to state. (For instance, Florida’s ADV program is administered by its Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission; New York’s is managed by the Commissioner of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation). NOAA has created an ADV Hub as part of its Marine Debris Program (marinedebris.noaa.gov/discover-issue/types-and-sources/abandoned-and-derelict-vessels). A drop-down menu provides information on funding, legislative overview and point of contact. There are also case studies documenting successful ADV removals in each region.
Despite the myriad agencies involved in response to ADVs, funding is a constant challenge. Raising or removing a derelict boat is an expensive process, averaging between $350 and $450 per foot, depending on the circumstances.
And of course, no matter whose budget it comes from, taxpayers ultimately foot the bill when owners abandon their boats.