Will new Florida law reduce number of abandoned boats?

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A new Florida law could make local waterways safer and cleaner; it provides an extra step to notify the owners of damaged or abandoned boats before they sink.

WMNF interviewed Phil Horning, the derelict vessel program administrator for the Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission.

Listen to the full interview here:

“Well, derelict vessels are any vessels that are left stored or abandoned on the waters of the state in a wrecked, junked, or substantially dismantled condition. They may also be vessels that are stored at a Florida port without a Port Authority’s permission or they could be vessels that are left stored or grounded on private property without the permission of the property owner.

“Our agency deals with #1, which is the vessels that are on the public waters of the state. Right now we are tracking approximately 367 active cases in our statewide derelict vessel database, which is used by Florida Fish and Wildlife and has 59 other participating agencies using it. It’s quite a few derelict vessels and a lot of work to try to remove these vessels from the waters.”

Do they present a danger?

“They can. They can present a navigation hazard, which could injure or kill somebody if they were hit and also they provide an environmental hazard. Sometimes these vessels are leaching fuels, oils, and other toxins into the water.”

There’s a new Florida law, what will it do to help you reduce the risk of derelict vessels?

“Well, the new Florida law is the Florida At-Risk law. Prior to this year, we had a voluntary community policing effort, where officers would hang a tag on a vessel and just open a dialogue, without any penalty to the owner of the vessel, stating that the officer has noticed the conditions of the vessel are similar to those that precede a derelict vessel. Trying to encourage the owner to do the right thing and get the vessel repaired or maintain it properly.

“The legislature, this year, passed a law and made it Florida Statute 327.4107, which is the new At-Risk law and a vessel owner may now be cited with a non-criminal citation for having a vessel that exhibits some of the following conditions: if it’s taking on water or has taken on water without an effective means to de-water itself; if spaces on the vessel that are designed to be enclosed or are incapable of being sealed off or remain open to the elements for extended periods of time; or if the vessel has broken loose or is in danger of breaking loose from it’s anchor; or the vessel is left stored aground, unattended, in such a state that would prevent the vessel from getting underway; or is listing due to water intrusion; or is sunk or is partly sunk. If an officer observes those conditions, he can write a non-criminal citation for the owner and the first offense is $50. If not corrected within 30 days the second offense would be $100 and if not corrected after that, the third offense would be $250 and the same thereafter. It could also require a mandatory appearance in court.”

I imagine it’s a very expensive process to haul away a boat. How much does it cost to take a derelict vessel out of the water and then overall, per year, how expensive is this problem?

“In our overall programs throughout the state, there’s varying costs based on available contractors, the size of vessels, the condition–whether it’s on the bottom and needs to be raised or if it’s floating–the average is between $250-$300 per foot, normally. But, I’ve seen some vessels some vessels cost as much as $100,000 to remove and I’ve seen other vessels cost $500 to remove. So, it really depends on what kind of vessel it is and where it’s located.

“We try to get them out before they sink. If they sink, they’re usually 10-times more expensive to remove than they are if they’re floating. That’s one of the reasons for the At-Risk law is to heighten prevention and try to get the vessels taken care of before they reach the derelict point.”

Who’s responsible for paying that money?

“The owner is responsible for their vessel until it is properly disposed of. If they fail to remove their vessel from the waters of the state, after being ordered to do so, it will be removed by a government authority–usually the county–by law enforcement authority and it will be at the owner’s expense. So, the owner could be facing civil litigation for repayment of the money as well as criminal charges and fines.”

If you see a derelict vessel, when you’re out on the water, who should you notify?

“If the public sees one they should call their local law enforcement or they can call FWC at 1-888-404-3922. They can call that number and they can state that they have observed a derelict vessel and an officer will usually go out and take a look at it and see if it is or is not derelict. They can also call their sheriff’s department or a local police department. All law enforcement agencies have the same authority.”

And from that point, how long does the process take to contact the owner and to get everything squared away?

“Usually it doesn’t take very long to do the investigation. The time that is usually spent with the boat sitting in one place is waiting on the funding to pay for it’s removal. Most vessels that are derelict have a negative intrinsic value and unlike a car–that can be towed away and impounded and if not claimed, sold for a small amount of money to a junkyard–vessels usually cost much more to remove than they’re worth. So, you have to find somebody who will take it out and they will charge a fee for it. With derelict vessels sitting around, the time element is waiting for the funding to remove the vessel, usually not the investigation.”

Those are my only questions. Is there anything else our listeners should know?

“We just really encourage people to–when they sell their vessel–to make sure that the seller contacts DHSMV, which is the Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles, and advise them on the correct form, that they have sold the interest in their vessel to somebody else. This helps alleviate the responsibility from a previous owner for being charged with a derelict vessel, if a future owner allows it to become derelict. It is the law, failing to do so is a misdemeanor. Both the owner who purchased the boat and the seller, who sold the boat are both supposed to contact the DHSMV.

“FWC will be helping county and local governments very soon with a derelict vessel removal grant. The legislature appropriated $1.4 million for the use in removing derelict vessels and will be distributing that soon to those applicants.”

The new state law went into effect on July 1.