Proposed Florida legislation eases derelict boat removal
MERRITT ISLAND — All those gutted, rotting-out old sailboats, yachts and other defunct dream boats — and the fuel and sewage they leak — have got to go, Florida lawmakers say, to keep afloat the watery reasons so many chose to live and play here.
But many times, no one steps up as the owner, leaving the "derelict," often sunken boats sitting in the Indian River Lagoon and other coastal waters for years, obstructing our waterways.
To prevent all that, Rep. Tyler Sirois, R-Merritt Island, and Sen. Travis Hutson, R-Palm Coast, are floating proposed legislation that would put more legal teeth in Florida's efforts to clean up old junk boats from state waters, shortening what's now "an endless cycle of citations."
The bill would create a new designation of "nuisance vessel," after a boat owner receives more than three "at risk" of becoming a derelict vessel violations in an 18-month period, then give Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission more powers to force owners to fix issues before their boat sinks and becomes the state agency's problem. That new "nuisance" designation will allow authorities to move the boat before it becomes derelict, sinks and becomes a much more polluting and expensive mess.
"The removal and destruction of a derelict vessel like the one behind me, is estimated to cost 10 times more than the cost of removing a vessel still floating but in a stage of disrepair," Sirois said, standing in front of a 36-foot Pacemaker boat sunken just off Intracoastal Waterway Park on Merritt Island.
Sirois said the fiberglass boat behind him was likely outfitted with inboard engines, a 260-gallon fuel tank, a toilet and wastewater holding tanks, batteries, and a generator. "All that is sitting behind me," he said.
Sirois' House Bill 639 is a broad-sweeping 63-page boating bill that would, among other things, create a program empowering FWC to remove derelict vessels. It also would ban the dumping of sewage — untreated or treated — in state waters. The bill is part of FWC's package for the 2021 legislative session.
If it passes, the bills provisions would take effect July 1.
Among other things, the bill would:
- Allow owners to turn in boats determined by law enforcement to be at risk of becoming derelict to FWC to be destroyed without penalty.
- Provide for removal and destruction of an abandoned boats for which an owner can't be identified or the owner of which is deceased and no heir is interested in acquiring the vessel.
- Make it state law to keep boaters away from potentially sensitive spaceflight operations, such as when parts of spaceflight assemblies fall into waters and when recovery operations are necessary.
Derelict vessels litter the lagoon
The new derelict vessel program would be funded by the state's Marine Resources Conservation Trust Fund or the Florida Coastal Protection Trust Fund.
This year, the new vessel cleanup program would ask for $3.9 million, said Maj. Rob Rowe, FWC's boating and waterways section leader. FWC typically spends $2 million to $3 million per year removing derelict vessels, Rowe said.
"We have more coastline than any other state, second only to Alaska," Rowe said during Wednesday's press conference. "So we want to keep drawing people here to enjoy our waterways and this is a good step in the right direction."
Sirois' bill would allow owners of "at-risk" or "nuisance" vessels to turn the vessel's title over to FWC, allowing the boat to be destroyed without penalty.
"This proposal preserves the due-process right of the boat owner by providing for a 21-day notice requirement and an administrative hearing," Sirois said. The bill also allows law enforcement to relocate "at-risk" vessels if they are within 20 feet of mangroves or other upland vegetation.
Vessels are deemed "at-risk" if they are in danger of breaking loose, lack steerage and propulsion or don't meet several other safety standards.
The bill also doubles penalties for citation for not resolving derelict vessel issues, to $100 for the first citation, $250 for the second and $500 for the third.
Brad Whitmore, of Rockledge, praised the proposed legislation. He said he once had to call FWC about a boat he could see from his living room that was about to sink. FWC told him they couldn't do anything about it until they followed the current lengthy process.
"That is a step in the right direction," Whitmore said of Sirois' bill.
Bob Atkins, president of Citizens for Florida's Waterways, a boating advocacy group in Brevard, said most of the bill is reasonable. But he worries about one provision that would give municipalities the authorization to create slow speed boating zones near certain locations, such as bridges.
"This could become an issue if officious communities get involved in regulating waterways unnecessarily," Atkins wrote in an email. "Not all bridges have the same traffic — and not all municipalities have good sense."
No sewage dumping in state waters
If the bill passes, Florida would join seven other states that ban dumping sewage in state waters: Michigan, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Mexico, Rhode Island, Vermont and Wisconsin.
But before Florida could become a "no-discharge zone," the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency would have to determine that the state has adequate facilities for the safe and sanitary removal and treatment of sewage from boats, according to a legislative staff analysis, and that they are reasonably available.
Liveaboard vessels and houseboats would have to maintain logs for no less than one year of the date and locations of all pump outs of marine sewage.
No paddling in the ICW
Paddleboards, kayaks and other "human-powered" vessels would still be allowed to cruise the Indian River Lagoon and other coastal waters.
But to make those waters safer, Sirois' bill would outlaw people in kayaks or other human-powered vessels from paddling within the main north-south federal channel that cuts through the middle of the lagoon and other intracoastal waters, called the Intracoastal Waterway (ICW) — unless because of obstruction, congestion or other reasons the ICW is the only option for navigation.
But most of the bill focuses on derelict vessels.
In 2019 and 2020, Brevard listed 84 derelict vessels, 60 of which have been removed, according to data from Sirois' office.
Since January 1 of this year, six more boats have been reported as derelict in Brevard County," Sirois said. "There is no reason why this should happen."
Jim Waymer is environment reporter at FLORIDA TODAY.
Contact Waymer at 321-242-3663
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