Will Florida take steps to remove derelict boats faster?

Derelict boats are an eyesore and an environmental threat, wildlife officials say.
Two derelict boats are seen partly sunk in the intracoastal waters just off the coast on Feb. 2 in Dunedin. State wildlife officials would like to see derelict boats removed more quickly from state waters.
Two derelict boats are seen partly sunk in the intracoastal waters just off the coast on Feb. 2 in Dunedin. State wildlife officials would like to see derelict boats removed more quickly from state waters. [ CHRIS URSO | Times ]
Published Oct. 16, 2023

Wildlife officials want to speed up the process of removing abandoned and storm-damaged boats from state waters, while complimenting residents for efforts to secure vessels ahead of Hurricane Idalia.

Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission officials earlier this month outlined plans to ask for $7 million from the Legislature for a derelict-vessel removal program. Also, the commission will ask lawmakers to approve speeding a notice period for owners to take care of damaged and abandoned boats.

Commission chairperson Rodney Barreto said that during a recent fishing trip on the St. Johns River, he came across five derelict craft, which were an “eyesore” and an environmental problem.

“I just think that this problem is only going to get bigger, as more people move to Florida, as more boats are registered in Florida, as boats get older, they just naturally get abandoned, because people are going, ‘I’m not going to pay the insurance,’” Barreto said during a commission meeting in Jensen Beach on Oct. 4.

During the fiscal year that ended June 30, state agencies reported handling 353 of the more than 420 boats damaged and abandoned after Hurricane Ian, 282 “abandoned migrant vessels” in South Florida and 270 boats from other areas of the state.

Derelict boats also have been a problem in the waters off Pinellas County. In 2022, plans were launched to remove dozens of the boats from the water.

Col. Brian Smith of the commission’s Division of Law Enforcement said most residents along the Gulf Coast heeded warnings ahead of Idalia’s Aug. 30 landfall and secured their vessels on the water or took them inland. The result, Smith said, is only 40 boats have been documented as left derelict by the storm.

“This shows that communities can do a huge part in helping out,” Smith said. “If you have the ability to remove your vessel from the water prior to a storm, the result is far fewer derelict vessels after a storm. So, this community did an amazing job of taking care of that.”

The Category 3 Idalia made landfall in the Keaton Beach area of Taylor County but also affected other areas of the Gulf Coast as it traveled north.

With the 2024 legislative session starting in January, Jess Melkun, the commission’s legislative affairs director, said the agency is seeking a change to get boat owners to act quicker.

The request would allow officers to post notification stickers on vessels identified as derelict, as part of a process to set off a 21-day clock in which owners can request administrative hearings to determine if the vessels are derelict. When it doesn’t receive responses from owners, the state can begin the process of removing boats at the owners’ expense.

Current law requires officers to make reasonable efforts to contact owners of derelict, at-risk or public-nuisance boats. If names and addresses of the owners are reasonably available, officers must mail notices to the owners before placing stickers on the vessels.

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“This often requires that the officer make a second trip to the vessel to post the sticker notice once the paper notice has been issued or mailed to the owner,” Melkun said.

Barreto questioned if the process could be further shortened.

“Maybe there’s a different way we can do this, and maybe we’ve got to go change state law, but I mean, we have so many derelict boats throughout Florida that it’s just cumbersome upon the agency,” Barreto said.