Abandoned & Derelict Boats
The widespread issue of abandoned boats on our coast has gone unresolved for long enough. It’s time to act.
From Robert Clark’s office the bounty of the Comox Valley reveals itself. The snowy Comox Glacier dominates the wall of mountains to the west. The city of Courtenay sits in the foreground. Just peaking out from among the trees on the foreshore is rich farmland. Then it’s the mud flats of the Courtenay estuary, flooded and full of bird life at high tide. Look the other way and there’s Goose Spit, a hook shaped sand spit that’s home to an endangered butterfly and protects Comox Harbour from raging southeasterlies. Beyond the spit are the renowned shellfish growing waters of Baynes Sound.
Clark, the warfinger for Comox Valley Harbour Authority, spends his office hours perched over this land of plenty (literally; it is the region’s tagline) like a bald eagle on a piling. He knows every boat in the protected confines of the federal marina and neighbouring private slips. And he’s just as aware of the flock of boats outside the breakwater, the ones sitting at anchor or on permanent moorage. When the wind blows these are the ones he worries about. For good reason.
Within this same view sit no less than six wrecks, washed up on the beaches and mud flats around the harbour. Two sunken boats emerge at low tide dripping with green algae, like haunted ships in a Scooby-Doo cartoon. All of them sat at anchor or on a mooring buoy outside the marinas until a fall or winter storm set them free to ghost across the bay.
“Just a couple weeks ago one broke free and ran aground not far from the marina,” he says. “A slick of oil spread around it, but no one would do anything about it. About a week later the owner showed up, stripped it of anything of value and left. It’s still sitting there.” The story is not unique. “We’re seeing more and more boats washing up on beaches and abandoned every year,” Clark says. “The problem is getting worse and no one is stepping up to do anything about it.”
Regulations exist requiring owners to maintain their boats and clean them up if they run aground. But finding the owner of a boat, especially older ones that have changed hands many times, is often impossible. The boats moored in Comox Harbour are rarely insured and the cost of pulling a boat out of the mud or floating a sunken wreck off the bottom often costs more than the boats are worth. Frequently the owner of a wrecked boat simply walks away. Another related issue is derelict boats, unsightly, barely seaworthy vessels permanently anchored. The owners are often known but getting them cleaned up or moved presents a challenge of its own.
Transport Canada, the Coast Guard and Fisheries and Oceans Canada share responsibility for dealing with derelict or abandoned boats. In theory, if the wreck poses a hazard to navigation or the environment one of these agencies will deal with it. But with murky legal regulations, no dedicated funds to pay for the salvage efforts, overlapping jurisdictions and unclear rules, the agencies rarely do.
For instance, when Pacific Yachting contacted Transport Canada about the sail boats slowly disintegrating on the beaches around Comox Harbour a media advisor replied in an email: “The federal government has determined that the boats currently wrecked in Comox Harbour are not obstructing navigation nor posing a pollution risk to the marine environment.”
Clark notes any boat has oil in the engine and bilges, fuel in the tanks, fibreglass in the hull, possibly asbestos in the insulation. All that ends up in the water when it’s wrecked. “You can’t tell me that’s not an environmental hazard,” he says.
The federal government recognizes there’s a problem with the status quo and plans to table legislation. However marina owners, environmental advocates and those in the boating business say the proposed changes won’t deal with the fundamental problems that cause the abandoned and derelict boat issue in the first place.
“Nothing will change until they sort out the jurisdiction, the social issues that push people to living on their boats and most importantly the funding to pay for dealing with it all,” says Clark. “The government’s position is to really emphasize that it’s the responsibility of the boat owners to deal with their vessel at end of life,” says Lisa Geddes, the executive director of Boating BC, an industry advocacy group. “But that’s always been the case and the vast majority of boat owners are responsible. The people who abandon boats are not accountable. Changing the rules isn’t going to change that.”
Lisa Geddes been following the abandoned and derelict boat issue for more than a decade. The biggest problem, she says, is that there’s no way to dispose of an old boat before it’s become a problem. In B.C. it’s difficult and expensive to dump fibreglass. Some boats contain asbestos, which is even more onerous. Even without those issues it would cost more than $5,000 to dispose of a small recreational boat properly. That creates strong incentive to sell or give away a boat, even one with questionable seaworthiness, says Geddes. This was especially prevalent in the last recession when insurance and moorage costs made owning a boat impossible for some. Without strong registration requirements, it can become impossible to track down the present owner of a used boat. At the same time climbing housing prices and falling rental vacancy rates, a cheap or free boat becomes social housing. The number of boats moored or anchored in protected bays steadily climbed as did the numbers wrecking on beaches, boats sinking and complaints about unsightly boats and the garbage, sewage and other hazards emanating from them.
But Geddes stresses the derelict boat issue is not just a recreational problem. Retired commercial vessels—tugs, ferries, old fishing boats—present larger hurdles. The Lorna Foss sank in Deep Bay, just south of the Comox Valley, in 2016. The previous owner of the tug said he sold the vessel to a Bowser resident, but the new owner never registered her. On the Fraser River an old BC Ferries ship, stripped of anything of value, rotted on the owners private property, threatening navigation and the environment, not to mention created an eyesore to residents and other users of the water. Because both were privately owned dealing with either boat was a challenge for government.
“Even when they do know who the owners are they can’t hold them accountable because they are not accountable boat owners,” says Geddes.
A Widespread Problem
The issues are so widespread the Union of British Columbia Municipalities has discussed it at their annual meeting for at least the last five years. The former federal Conservative government tabled some legislation but it died with the last election call. Heeding the call to action from her constituents, Nanaimo-Ladysmith NDP MP Sheila Malcomson tabled a private members bill in spring 2016 to focus jurisdictional authority and compel faster action on abandoned and derelict vessels.
Some local governments aren’t waiting for the government to act. In 2013 the Port of Vancouver committed $2-million to cleaning up derelict and abandoned boats and old structures like unused pilings. Three years into the five-year program they’ve dealt with 121 of 151 sites, mostly along the Fraser River. The city of Victoria’s efforts to evict people living on their boats in the Gorge Waterway hung up in court for several years. Finally last October they received the zoning approval to enforce city bylaws limiting mooring to 72 hours in a 30-day period. Not all efforts are as successful. Vancouver’s False Creek kicked out live-aboard boats at anchor. Most moved just outside False Creek’s jurisdiction and dropped anchor again.
“We can’t deal with this bay by bay,” says Geddes. “It has to be a national or at least provincial legislation.”
The gears are turning in Ottawa. The Liberal government promises its own legislation to beef up powers to force owners to pay for clean ups and “empower the Government of Canada to take more proactive action on vessels causing hazards before they become costly to address.” In November, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced the budget for these enhanced powers will come from the Oceans Protection Plan, a $1.5 billion fund created at the same time as the Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain Pipeline was approved. But Geddes says there’s no word on how much of the fund will go to derelict vessels and the proposed legislation lacks strong enough registration requirements. She says B.C. needs to look south for solutions.
Washington state’s Derelict Vessel Recovery program was born out of a few high profile abandoned boats in the early 2000s, says Troy Wood, the manager of the program. “There was an upswing in public support for us to fund the removal of the vessels,” he says. At first the program had to apply to the state government on a case by case basis. But that was slow and bureaucratic. Eventually they settled on a two-part scheme. An annual registration fee ($1 per foot for commercial boats or $3 for recreational) covers most of the budget. And when vessels wash up on land owned by the Department of Natural Resources the agency kicks in 10 per cent of the recovery fee. For the 2015-2017 budget the two sources amounted to $2.4 million, enough to remove more than 64 vessels.
The program relies on the public, communities or law enforcement to report a vessel of concern. Wood and his three-person team evaluate the vessel and rank it on a master list, depending on the condition and its location. First they attempt to contact the owner. Similar to rules in B.C. every boat over 16 feet with a 10 horsepower motor needs to registered and new owners and sellers have five days to file the paperwork. But unlike B.C., the registered owner, even if they sold the boat, is responsible for clean up costs, creating incentive for registering every sale. If DVR can’t find the owner they clean up the boat themselves or task another qualified organization to do the clean up and refund the expenses. Since the program started, DVR’s removed 692 vessels and counting.
But Wood thinks a new effort—the Vessel Turn-In Program—is even more effective. The preventative program, launched in 2013, authorized the DVR to take high-risk vessels off the water. Working with co-operative owners who couldn’t afford to do it themselves DVR disposes of vessels properly. Taking a typical recreational boat to a landfill costs about $5,000 in Washington state, Wood says, compared to the more than $10,000 it costs to salvage and dispose of a boat washed up on a beach. With its annual $200,000 budget the program disposed 75 boats so far.
“We’re seeing fewer reports of vessels sinking or beaching after big storms,” says Wood. “I think that’s a major indicator that we’ve removed the high risk vessels.”
When asked what lessons Canada should take from Washington’s experience Wood had two pieces of advice; Create dedicated and consistent funding, and empower a central authority to manage and pay for the efforts. But spread out the workload to local agencies, marinas and communities, the ones most motivated to act.
A Social Issue
But all of these ideas overlook one of the major issues, says Sarah Verstegen, from Sea Change Marine Conservation. Based in Brentwood Bay, near Victoria, the group runs projects to clean up Todd Inlet. Verstegen also worked for a marina for a number of years. She’s seen the impact people living on anchored boats can have on the coastline, both the environmental costs of the sewage, grey water and garbage dumped into the ocean and from waterfront home owners who resent the unsightly boats, the parked cars, the fact the boaters are not paying taxes.
“It’s a festering social issue that needs to be addressed,” she says.
While in some cases people choose to live on a boat, in many cases she thinks the live-aboards are a social housing issue—the last resort for people who can’t find or afford a home on land. Old boats are cheap, sometimes free, and cost almost nothing once they’re anchored. Just as there are no easy solutions for finding the homeless a bed in the city, so too on the ocean. Forcing derelict vessels to move on just pushes the problem to the next bay, she says.
“That’s not sustainable. We need to figure out how, where and when it’s okay to moor a boat,” she says.
Back in Comox, Robert Clark can point out the live-aboard boats, maybe a half dozen of the approximately 20 vessels moored outside the marina all winter long. Mostly sailboats, they’re now turning in unison with the freshening breeze. The forecast calls for a gale tonight. Will they all still be there when he comes to work tomorrow?
“The derelict and abandoned boat issue is a complex problem with no easy solution,” he says. “But other jurisdictions have figured it out. The only reason it hasn’t been dealt with so far is because of a lack of political will. It’s time to act.”