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Derelict vessels create danger and taxpayer burden in Southwest Florida

Posted at 9:38 AM, Nov 21, 2018
and last updated 2018-11-21 09:38:11-05

LEE COUNTY, Fla. -- 4 In Your Corner has been looking into an issue many of you have told us is bothering you - derelict boats in our waters.  So we've been spending some time to get you to answers as to why they remain the water for so long, even after authorities are made aware of them!
Charter boat captain Colin Carpenter of Big Water Charters told us how a derelict boat can turn into a hazard for other boaters right away.  "You don't always know where those things are going to be," said Carpenter.  "If it just happened yesterday, and you come out the next morning, and there's a sailboat mast sticking up out of the water, that can be an issue."
Capt. Colin told us derelict vessels can also be a problem for Southwest Florida's environment. "There's a lot that can be left behind - fuel, garbage, wiring, the hull paint on the boat is toxic," he said.  "So it can create this little plume around the boat that is harmful for marine life."
He said it's also a turnoff to visitors who come to Southwest Florida expecting a boat ride on sparkling clean Gulf waters.  "If you have a boat that's leaking chemical into the water, you don't want to see that."
We started our quest for answers by turning the state agency that handles such boats: the Florida Fish & Wildlife Commission, or FWC for short.
Officer Brian Norris laid out the definition as stated in Florida law. "A derelict boat is anything that's been wrecked, junked or substantially dismantled," he said.  "These boats are a huge issue all across the state."

We asked him why derelict boats seem to linger in the water for so long. He said part of the reason is that the law requires FWC investigate first.  "These investigations can take a few months, if not longer," said Norris.
He said FWC usually starts its investigation by checking records with the Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles to find out who owns the boat.  "But a lot of times we start doing the investigation and the boat has been sold," he said.
"I've done some investigations where it's been sold three or four times since the last registered owner," added Norris.
Even though state law requires boat sellers and buyers to register the owner of a boat within 30 days of the transaction, many people do not do it.  He also told us some people go out of their way to make sure the boat can't be traced to them after deliberately leaving it in the water. "There are actually cases where all identifiers have been removed from the boat," Norris said.
"And they've essentially dumped it there and we've actually unable to determine who the owner is." 
Officer Norris explained that, even when they do find the current owner, that person gets time as outlined in state law. "There's a 45-day period that they are able to bring the boat into compliance, remove it themselves or request a hearing with Florida Fish & Wildlife," said Norris. 
Sometimes, that process can stretch to 120 days under state law. 
He also told us state law outlines the punishment for those found guilty of leaving boats like that in the water.  "To leave a boat in a derelict is actually illegal in the state of Florida," he said.  "It's a second-degree misdemeanor.  So if somebody is found guilty of that, they can be fined $500 or be sentenced to 60 days in jail, plus restitution for the cost of removal," said Norris.
But it's not uncommon for some boat owners to claim they don't have the money to remove the boats.   That can mean public money is used to remove derelict boats - especially when the boat is in high traffic area like a channel - requiring immediate removal by FWC. 
4 In Your Corner found that in Lee County alone, $106,280 was used to pay contractors remove derelict boats in the 2018 fiscal year through September.  The cost is not limited to removing derelict boats; there's also the cost of disposal.
"A lot of times the burden of the disposal of it falls on the taxpayer," said Norris. "It ends up costing the taxpayers more money in the end.  We're talking thousands of dollars to remove some of these boats."
We asked FWC how much money the agency spends on this issue. 
In a statement to Fox 4, Rob Klepper with FWC wrote about the cost for all of Florida:
"The cost to remove a vessel can vary greatly depending upon its size, condition and disposition in the water. The FWC spends between $500,000 to $1,000,000 per year on assisting cities and counties with derelict vessel removal costs.  The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) works regularly with various state, county and local partners to resolve issues with derelict, abandoned and at-risk vessels. Some counties have derelict vessel programs in place and work closely with the FWC on removal efforts."
Klepper also gave advice on reporting boats that may present a hazard:
"To report a vessel that may have been abandoned or derelict, please contact the FWC's Wildlife Alert Hotline at 888-404-3922 to report the vessel to law enforcement. Once deemed abandoned or derelict, boat owners are given 45 to 120 days or longer to claim their vessel. The FWC makes every effort to work with the vessel owner to resolve any violations." 
Officer Norris told us about some of the ways FWC tries to minimize the danger to other boaters - and the cost to taxpayers.  He said they work with boaters to identify "at risk" boats before they become derelict. 
So what can we all do to keep our waters safe and minimize how many out of our tax dollars are used to clean up other people's messes?  "We want them to call FWC and report the boat," answered Officer Norris. "That way we can get on it and start the investigation." 
He says sooner the investigation starts, the better, since leaving it to rot in the water can complicate the logistics and the price of removal. 
Captain Colin also reminds you it's important not to presume someone else has already called in a derelict vessel to FWC. "Not everybody does that as long they can avoid it and hope they don't run into next time," said Carpenter. 
Like many boaters, he often relies on his navigational equipment when he's on the water and can't always be in a position to spot a derelict vessel with a naked eye. "I am out on the water in the dark, early morning, late at night," said Carpenter.  "They can definitely be a navigational hazard." 
To report a derelict boat, call FWC at 888-404-2922 so they can add it to their map
In the meantime, Capt. Colin told us there is a one small silver lining to some of the derelict boats floating in the mangroves of Southwest Florida.  "Every one of those boats has a story behind it," he said.  "And people kind of want to know the story behind the boat."
Captain Colin said when he used to give kayak tours, many of his return clients from up north would inquire about some of the derelict boats they had seen on their previous trips.  "I would have people come back year after year," said Carpenter.  "Sometimes the one thing they would remember would be, 'Remember that boat over there in the mangroves?'"