Boats are as connected to the Florida Keys as sea life is to the ocean. It’s hard to separate one from the other.
The flip side of that blessing is a constantly increasing problem with so-called end-of-life vessels, or boats in imminent danger of sinking.
Monroe County’s Marine Resources Office, in coordination with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, is launching what it calls the pilot Vessel Turn-In Program. The plan is designed to prevent anchored vessels in poor condition but still floating from becoming derelict or abandoned.
Environmentalists, government officials and the marine industry have been grappling with the derelict-boat dilemma for years. Derelict vessels litter our shorelines and neighborhoods. The disposal aspect is more complex today than it was 40 or 50 years ago when more vessels were constructed of wood or steel because fiberglass hulls outlive the rest of the boat. Unwanted boats are simply not worth the time and money to repair.
The program would be free for eligible boat owners who own boats between 16 and 40 feet long and for those without the financial resources to pay for removal and disposal. The program would not apply to boat owners who abandon or intentionally sink their vessels. They would remain subject to fines and possible jail time for such actions.
Monroe County, which officials say has the most derelict vessels of all 67 Florida counties, was chosen for the state’s pilot program. If proven successful, it might be expanded to other coastal areas of Florida.
This is a good idea for several reasons.
Derelict boats are eyesores and have no positive value in our tourism-focused community. They convey to visitors a degree of apathy or disinterest in our community, which is not emblematic of how most of us view our home.
Removing these vessels costs taxpayer money. Earlier this year, Monroe County took steps to remove 32 derelict boats from the Marquesas Keys off Key West. The $61,200 project was particularly complex due to the remote location and specialized boats and equipment necessary to perform the job, but all derelict vessel removals cost money.
Since the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration will fund the new program through grant agreements by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection and Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, Monroe taxpayers won’t have to foot the entire bill for this cleanup program. The new VTIP program will provide just slightly more than $100,000 during the first year of the anticipated five-year pilot program.
The Marine Resources Office removes about 60 to 80 derelict vessels each year at an average annual cost of $160,000 to $180,000 paid from Boating Improvement Funds. In 2016, Monroe County spent $283,000 on derelict-vessel removal thanks to an increase in law enforcement and grant funding.
Not long ago, Monroe County and FWC resource managers conducted workshops to gauge public sentiment about how to address this increasing problem. Ideas like instituting a deposit fee at the time a boat is purchased that would be earmarked for disposal, similar to the way that consumers pay a disposal fee when new tires are purchased for an automobile, were viewed as a deterrent to boat sales by the marine industry.
Alternative ideas, like repurposing derelict vessels as artificial reefs, a re-use approach instead of a recycling solution, have been floated for years but have not been met with far-reaching acceptance because of the potential for boat fluids to enter and pollute our waters.
So here we are today with a viable solution. And even if the Vessel Turn-In Program is not the silver bullet so many have been seeking, it’s the most positive step taken so far.
Three public outreach meetings are planned to introduce the program: July 18 at the Harvey Government Center, 1200 Truman Ave., Key West; July 19 at the Murray E. Nelson Government and Cultural Center, 102050 Overseas Highway, Key Largo; and July 20 at the Marathon Government Center, 2798 Overseas Highway. All are at 6 p.m.