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Do NOT Abandon Ship: How Derelict Vessels Are Clogging Florida's Waterways

abandoned boats
Carrie Pinkard
WUSF Public Media
According to the Florida Fish and WIldlife Conservation Commission, There are 350 derelict vessel cases open in the state of Florida.

Drivers heading north into Tampa on the Howard Frankland Bridge may have noticed the Moonraker II, an abandoned fishing boat sinking by the Westshore Boulevard exit.

This is just one of many abandoned boats in the Tampa Bay area. 

Curtis Franklin, who oversees boat removals in Pasco County, points to several reasons why people would buy a boat just to abandon it weeks, months, or years later.

“I think that a lot of times people get involved with thinking they can fix up a boat, but they realize they’re in over their heads financially and they go ahead and dump it… on us,” said Franklin.

Phil Horning, who manages the Derelict Boat program for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission, said on any given day, there are 350 derelict boat cases statewide. 

“The largest cause is named storms like Hurricane Irma, and Hurricane Michael. Those types of storms can cause a lot of vessels to immediately become derelict,” he said. “In other situations, you may have people who are in financial despair, and the last thing on their list of needs to take care of is their vessel.”

Credit Carrie Pinakard / WUSF Public Media
WUSF Public Media
Removing a derelict vessel can take months, and is a collaborative effort between the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commision, law enforcement, and local officials.

There’s a boat graveyard in eastern Hillsborough County, just off the Williams Park boat ramp in the Alafia River.

It’s a post-apocalyptic scene of rotting wood and broken sails.

Some of these boats have been sitting for a year, and they’re likely to never be used again, according to Robin Caton, manager of Safety and Special Enforcement for Hillsborough County.

He said before the county is allowed to remove them, there’s an extensive investigation involving local law enforcement and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

“That could take between 45 and 120 days or more. Once they identify the owner, they give them a notice that their vessel has been determined to be derelict. They give them a minimum of 21 days to remove it from the water,” he said. “Then finally they would send us a letter authorizing us to remove it.”

Caton said the removal process on average costs the county $7,000 to $12,000, but it can be much higher. After the county removes the boat, the owner has 30 days to repay them or pay the consequences.

“If they do not do so, they will not be able to get a registration on a vehicle, a trailer, or a vessel in the state of Florida until they pay it off,” Caton said.

Franklin, the Pasco County program manager, said losing all rights to own a vehicle doesn’t seem to be enough of a threat to some boat owners. He said he’s seen people flee town to avoid paying to remove a derelict vessel.

Credit Curtis Franklin / Pasco County
Pasco County

He remembers one case, where a Pasco County man bought a 37-foot boat. A week later, he took it out in the middle of the night and grounded it, tearing out the bottom. Franklin said law enforcement spent six months trying to contact the man and get him to remove it, but he had fled to Georgia.

Pasco County spent $37,000 to remove the boat.

“Sometimes they pay, and sometimes they take off for Georgia,” he said. “We’ve seen the money on a couple different boats, but for the most part we don’t usually see that money.”

More Than Just An Eyesore

Derelict boats are more than just a financial burden or an eyesore for waterfront homes.

When the boats are left in the water for months, they start to sink. This half-submerged state can cause navigational problems for other boats. The abandoned vessels can also wreak havoc on the environment, said Horning, from Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission. 

boat beached on shore in Pasco County
Credit Curtis Franklin
“I’ve paid up to 37,000 to remove a boat, all the way down to 14-15 thousand to remove it," Pasco Parks and Recreation Manager Curtis Franklin said.

“The vessel itself, if it’s left to deteriorate in the water can release unknown chemicals from the fiberglass and other materials on board,” he said.  “If it sinks and goes to the bottom it can cause (sea floor) damage, by scarring sea glasses, damaging coral, damaging aquatic preserve areas for shellfish.”

Officials say the law sets limitations to the boats counties are allowed to remove. For instance, they’re not allowed to remove a boat that’s tied to a person’s dock, no matter how dilapidated it appears.

“Let’s say…a guy has a derelict vessel and it’s sunk to the bottom of the canal, as long as there’s a line running from his boat to his dock, I really can’t touch that boat. I can’t do anything about it,” Franklin said.

Counties can seek help from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission when it comes to paying for boat removal, Horning said.

One way is to apply for a Florida Derelict Vessel Removal Grant. The Wildlife Commission will pay up to 75 percent of the cost for removal on any eligible vessel.

abandoned boats in water.
Credit Curtis Franklin
Curtis Franklin, Pasco County Parks and Recreation manager, said derelict boats can be found near Anclote River Park, off the Pithlachascotee River in Port Richey, and in Gulf Harbors

Carrie Pinkard is the Stephen Noble news intern for the summer 2019 semester. She earned her bachelor’s degree from Florida State University in English, before heading to USF St Pete to pursue a master’s in journalism.