Abandoned boats blight Indian River idyll

The view behind the Eau Gallie Library on Pineapple Avenue is almost postcard perfect. Anchored boats bob in the gentle breeze on the Indian River under a clear blue sky. A small boardwalk leads to a covered dock. Indian Harbour Beach rises in the distance.

The one blight in this picture is an abandoned 36-foot sailboat, partly on its side, dashed against the rocks. A victim of Hurricane Matthew, the boat is tied mast to tree with rope for support.

The sailboat is one of more than 50 derelict vessels awaiting disposal up and down both sides of the Indian River from Titusville to Grant, on the mainland and island sides of the lagoon. More than half ended up abandoned in the wake of Matthew.

“Abandoned and derelict boats have always been a problem,” said Matt C. Culver, boating and waterways program coordinator for the Brevard County Natural Resources Management Department. “We’ve removed more than 150 derelict vessels in the past ten years. We see all kinds, but the majority of them are sailboats.”

Removal costs for each boat ranges from $2,500 to $6,000.

The reasons for abandonment vary, but damage and the inability to pay for repairs or removal are among them.

According to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, a vessel is “at risk of becoming derelict” if it takes on water that it can’t get rid of; if damage has left exposure to the elements; if the boat breaks loose or threatens to break loose from its anchor; if left unattended long enough to not function in the water.

Such boats present not only a danger to the public, but become locales for illegal activity, illegal housing and vandalism.

“If they are sunk along the shoreline for six months or more, people strip off every piece of metal and cable and you are left with a shell,” Culver said.

And taxpayers foot the bill for removal.

Culver works with law enforcement, the sheriff’s office and Florida Fish and Wildlife to identify derelict boats and track down the owner, often a fruitless task. “Many times we cannot find the owner. We’re not talking $100,000 boats. These are clunkers in need of repair to begin with.”

Florida law requires title transfers every time a boat changes hands. Failure to make the transfer could result in criminal charges to the seller, but the law hasn’t helped much, especially when it comes to sailboats. “They may have current registration but it does not require an ID to pay registration renewal fees. We are working on fixing that now,” Culver said.

If unable to find the owner, removal falls to the county or municipality.

In Melbourne Beach, authorities found an owner of a boat that broke loose from nearby Indialantic and ended up at Riverside and Avenue A earlier this year where it spent two weeks. “The owner had to make special arrangements to have it lifted out of the water onto dry land. It was too badly damaged to be towed away,” Town Manager Tim Day said.

But abandoned or derelict boats are rare in Melbourne Beach.

“We look at the identifying registration on the boat,” Day said. “We track down the last owner and if we cannot reach them we dispose of it ourselves. We make sure that all fuels are removed. That’s priority number one. A contractor will handle the removal from that point.”

Culver said most boats are left derelict in the Indian River Lagoon, with far fewer instances of abandonment on the ocean beaches. When it does happen, these are often homemade boats, often used for drug running and abandoned in the ocean.

To pay for removal, the county goes after grant money from Florida Fish and Wildlife and the Florida Inland Navigational District. The latter is a taxing district that maintains commerce on the Intracoastal Waterway. The district provides assistance funding up to $30,000 per county per year to assist with derelict vessel removal. Additional funding comes through the county from boating registration fees.

“We hope the state and FEMA will remove Matthew-related derelict boats,” Culver said.”

The county acts as quickly as possible, but quick is a relative term. “If a boat sinks today it might take a year to get it out of the water. Law enforcement reporting can take some time and then the processing on our end to get grant funding and hire a contractor can take a long time. We hire a contractor long term with a derelict vessel removal company. The projects go out to bid through the normal county procurement process. We are presently contracted with Absolute Marine.”

If the boat is near the shoreline with no hull damage, it’s pumped out and taken out at a boat ramp. Otherwise the contractor uses a barge with a large scoop. The scoop crushes the boats and puts them on deck to take to the landfill.

“Currently we have one grant and another just being signed to start to remove 24 boats in the next couple of weeks,” Culver said.

Florida Fish and Wildlife has announced the final application for the current fiscal year for derelict vessel removal funds. The application on a first-come, first-served basis of the remaining $399,000 is due no later than April 30.

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