“Derelict vessels are an issue for coastal communities. The state regulations for declaring a vessel derelict and pursuing authorization to dispose of it are difficult and time-consuming.”

MIRAMAR BEACH — After a 45-foot sailboat named Phantom of the Aqua washed ashore on a Walton County beach two weeks ago, many people wondered when and how it would be removed.

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The owner, John Hale, a boat captain from Gulfport near St. Petersburg, told the Daily News he plans to retrieve the vessel next week. But the problem with derelict vessels extends far beyond the Phantom, according to local officials.

“Derelict vessels are an issue for coastal communities,” said Doug Rainer, public information manager for the city of Destin. “The state regulations for declaring a vessel derelict and pursuing authorization to dispose of it are difficult and time-consuming.”

Currently, there are five derelict vessels in Walton County waters, five in Okaloosa County and one in Santa Rosa County, according to Phil Horning, derelict vessel program administrator with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. And in a boating community as active as the Emerald Coast, derelict vessels have long been a problem for local and state authorities.

According to Florida statute, a derelict vessel is defined as “any vessel ... that is left, stored, or abandoned in a wrecked, junked, or substantially dismantled condition upon any public waters of this state” or a vessel that is “docked or grounded at or beached upon the property of another without the consent of the owner of the property.”

Leaving a boat to become derelict is illegal and punishable by a $1,000 fine and up to a year in jail — in addition to paying the costs to have it removed — but Horning said FWC officers often struggle to get owners to reclaim their boats. There are several reasons a boat’s owner might leave it derelict, Horning said.

“Probably the most common reason is as a vessel ages, it becomes less valuable and needs more work and more maintenance,” Horning said. “If I buy a brand new boat for $20,000, and I sell it five years later for $5,000, and then it gets sold again for $2,500, it gets to the point where it’s not very manageable. People are trying to sell it for a buck and the person they’re selling it to usually doesn’t have the means to take care of it, and for whatever reason, it ends up becoming derelict so they just walk away from it.”

Horning noted the second most common reason boats become derelict is due to storms. After Hurricane Irma, as an example, more than 2,500 boats in Florida waters became derelict and displaced, and the FWC is in the “active process” of getting those boats removed.

Boats also become derelict if their owner passes away and didn’t have arrangements made for it, or if a person is in financial trouble and doesn’t prioritize taking care of their boat.

But most often, a derelict boat can become more costly than a maintained boat. Horning said, on average, it costs $300 to $350 per foot to remove a derelict vessel from the water. The owner is responsible for paying that fee, but in rare cases when, for whatever reason, the owner does not pay that fee, the cost for removing the vessel falls back on the city or county in which the vessel is located.

“We have money in our state derelict vessel removal grant program where we can offer grants to counties and cities where we pay 75 percent and they pay 25 percent,” Horning said. “But if we don’t have money in the program, it’s up to the cities.”

Removing the derelict vessels is important because there are several hazards they can present, according to Horning. Oil and fuel can be released into the water, posing issues for nearby fish. Additionally, the fiberglass material most boats are made of can decompose in the water and present environmental hazards.

“The boats can also tear up the bottom by running through sea grass and coral reefs,” Horning said. “Also, they’re just a blight. Nobody wants to look at them. And they’re navigational threats if they sink and are just below the water line ... they can cause accidents and be nasty navigation hazards.”

Ultimately, Horning said the best way to keep a boat from becoming derelict is by disposing of it properly. Most landfills will accept boats, and can even recycle the steel and aluminum.

“We appreciate all those people who do dispose of their vessel properly,” Horning said. “They’re helping eliminate this problem we have in Florida.”

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