A new state law is aimed at helping counties deal with removing derelict vessels from their waters. The state is also taking proactive steps to reduce the number of those vessels.

As hurricane season enters its peak, the potential for boats in local waterways to become derelict increases, creating navigational and environmental hazards. Last year's Hurricane Michael, for instance, turned 1,300 vessels in Bay County into derelicts and required the county to get help from the Coast Guard and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission to remove them.

But more often than not, according to local government officials who deal with derelict boats, outside of major storms it's less the weather than it is the boat owners' neglect that creates the problem. And beyond the navigational and environmental issues, derelict vessels that remain afloat can become havens for illicit activity, said Keith Bryant, Bay County's public works director and the man in charge of dealing with the problem boats.

"My board (the County Commission) would love to see them out of the water," he said.

Bay County officials keep a particularly close eye on derelict vessels. Bryant wouldn't venture a guess at the number of derelict boats in county waterways, but he did say officials review the issue is regularly.

"We have a committee that looks at it almost quarterly," he said. Still, he added, "derelict vessels are one of those problems that just don't go away."

However, a new state law could help county governments deal with them more expeditiously. The law, which took effect July 1, will increase the percentage of funding available to counties that apply successfully for assistance through the state's Marine Resources Conservation Trust Fund.

The fund comprises the approximately 33 percent of county vessel registration receipts that go to the state government. In addition to being used for derelict vessel removal, the money is available to counties to help with a host of other waterway projects, from navigation markers to public marinas.

Phil Horning, coordinator of the FWC's Derelict Vessel Program, said counties routinely opt to apply for funding for waterway projects rather than derelict vessel removal.

Under the new law, pending what is expected to be an affirmative November vote by the FWC's seven commissioners, the trust fund will cover 100 percent of derelict vessel removal costs for counties that successfully apply. Currently, the trust fund covers 75 percent of that cost, with the county government picking up the remaining 25 percent. The new law also will allow for submission of grant applications throughout the year, rather than the current 45-day cycle, Horning said.

It can cost from $350 to $450 per foot to get a derelict vessel out of the water. As just one local example, Sheila Fitzgerald, grants and special programs director in Santa Rosa County, which deals with a couple of derelict vessels each year, said total costs to get a derelict boat out of the water and into a local landfill can run from $15,000 to $20,000

In Walton County, Melinda Gates, the county's coastal resources liaison, currently is working to have two derelict boats removed, one from Choctawhatchee Bay and another from a local creek, at an estimated total cost of $24,000. The county went for a decade without having to deal with any derelict boats, Gates said, but last year found itself addressing five of them.

Once a derelict is identified, getting it out of the water can take as long as 120 days, she said.

And according to Fitzgerald, finding a marine services company to do the work can be challenging because of the comparatively low money paid when balanced against the special care that must be taken to remove a derelict vessel.  

"We have a hard time finding contractors ... because it's kind of small potatoes," Fitzgerald said. And, she added, there are environmental concerns such as watching out for fuel and fluid spills and not damaging vegetation that can make the work problematic.

Interestingly, finding contractors isn't a particular problem in Bay County, according to Bryant, because a number of marine services firms are located on local waterways. For them, Bryant said, the work can be as simple as towing in a derelict boat, breaking it up and hauling the pieces away.

State law defines a derelict vessel as one "that is left, stored, or abandoned ... (i)n a wrecked, junked, or substantially dismantled condition upon any public waters of this state ... ," is "(d)ocked, grounded, or beached upon the property of another without the consent of the owner of the property" ... or is "(a)t a port in this state without the consent of the agency having jurisdiction thereof."

Vessels determined to be derelict are tagged by the FWC with a notice giving the owner is given a minimum of 21 days — a change from the 45 days that had been the deadline —  to get it out of the water.

According to Horning, the FWC is able to locate only about half of the owners of derelict vessels. But even if owners are found, there's no guarantee they can get the boat out of the water.

"Sometimes, they're economically insolvent or they've overestimated their ability" to maintain a boat, Horning said.

Horning added that the FWC also is taking proactive steps to deal with derelict boats. A recently passed state law created an "at-risk" program in which the FWC can issue non-criminal citations to owners of boats that appear likely to become derelicts.

"A lot of owners do the right thing" and address issues pointed out by the FWC, Horning said.

In another front-end initiative, the new state law has authorized, although not yet funded, a study of boats anchored outside of recognized anchorages or moorings to determine whether they are contributing to the derelict vessel problem.

"A lot of it has to do with how well a vessel can be maintained" at such a mooring, Horning said.

Overall, the aim of the front-end efforts is "encouraging people to be more proactive," he said.

"Our goal is to continuously try" to reduce the number of derelict vessels, Horning said. "We don't want to get into a cycle where they're increasing."