Abandoned Boats Presenting Growing Environmental Danger
by WHITNEY PIPKINBay Journal News Service
Whether they hide as dangers below the surface of the water or become eyesores as they drift to shore, abandoned boats are a growing problem in the waters of the Chesapeake Bay, especially in Virginia. .
And they’re not as easy to get out of the water as they are to put in.
The US Coast Guard has documented 170 derelict and derelict vessels in Virginia waters since 2013, and state officials are compiling a list of even more that need to be removed.
Some boats are adrift by storms and, in the absence of a careful owner, remain so for months or years. Recreationers who bought a boat during the pandemic may realize that they no longer want to maintain one.
But one of the biggest concerns is for boats built during the affordable fiberglass boat boom that began in the 1960s, which are nearing the end of their life. The number of dropouts seems to be increasing.
Made with reinforced plastic and glass materials, these boats won’t blend into a marshy shoreline when they decay like their wooden ancestors. Instead, they persist in the environment, releasing microplastic particles and leaching toxic materials over time.
Boats often end up in a marina or adrift because the owner feels there are no other options for disposal. Getting rid of a decommissioned boat can easily cost more than the boat is worth.
Unlike old cars, whose mostly metal frames can be sold or given away for scrap, a boat’s fiberglass components “have virtually no value and tend to cost more to remove, prepare for disposal and disposal than their coins are worth,” states a recent report from the Virginia Coastal Policy Center at William & Mary Law School.
Not to mention, “the longer it takes, the more expensive it is to remove,” said Karen Forget, executive director of Lynnhaven River NOW, which has received calls for years from residents concerned about sinking or stranded boats near Virginia Beach. “They want us to find some sort of solution for what to do with it.”
Once it’s dead in the water, removing an abandoned boat costs thousands of dollars and up to tens of thousands depending on where the boat is and how badly it has already disintegrated. And getting it back out of the water – whether by tug, crane or claw – comes with all sorts of red tape.
The Lynnhaven Group, along with the Virginia Coastal Areas Management Program and the Clean Virginia Waterways Project at Longwood University, applied for a grant from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association’s Marine Debris Program to fund more removals of boats. The federal program has funneled nearly $2 million into 10 marine debris removal programs in states in 2021, helping them tackle a backlog of derelict ships breaking up in their waters.
The Coastal Zone Management Program, operated by the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality, has largely completed a report on the status of the state’s derelict boat problem. First written in the fall, the document includes policy suggestions to provide boat owners with better disposal options, fund moves and address underlying issues that contribute to a rise in derelict vessels.
By the end of May, the report was awaiting approval from Governor Youngkin’s administration. Meanwhile, the agency has been working on an inventory of abandoned boats to help prioritize moves once funding becomes available.
But Laura McKay, coastal management program manager, said the problem continued to grow.
“We have to turn off this tap, or we’ll be in big trouble,” she said.
Although Virginia law makes it a class 3 misdemeanor to abandon a ship in a waterway, the $500 fine is far less than the potential cost of its removal. Without a clear process for safe disposal, many people abandon their boats in desperation.
In the Chesapeake watershed, only Maryland has a stable source of funding to remove derelict ships, according to NOAA’s Marine Debris Program.
Maryland has funded its abandoned boat and wreckage program for years through a 5% excise tax on all boats purchased in the state. The money helps keep canals dredged for boating and provides up to $500,000 a year to remove derelict ships, according to the Virginia Coastal Policy Center report.
Florida, California and other coastal states have also developed ongoing funding mechanisms to pay for the removal of derelict vessels.
Whitney Pipkin is a Bay Journal writer based in Virginia. You can reach her at [email protected] This article first appeared in the June 2022 issue of the Bay Journal and was distributed by the Bay Journal News Service.