Bill would put teeth into law addressing boats at risk of sinking

The cost of pulling an old 30-foot vessel, possibly purchased for a few hundred dollars, from Keys waters may exceed $14,000, says a state report on a proposed new law.

The Florida Keys lead the state in abandoned and derelict vessels, with an estimate of about 300 stranded on the Florida Bay or Atlantic sea floor at any given time.

"The situation actually has gotten better over the last few years" because of increased enforcement, said Officer Bobby Dube of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

"But at the same time, the cost of removing a derelict vessel has gotten pricey," Dube said. "Getting a boat of any size off the bottom can be expensive."

A bill sponsored by state Rep. Holly Raschein (R-Key Largo) now working its way through the Florida Legislature would create a civil fine for boat owners who refuse to repair anchored boats considered at risk of sinking and becoming derelict.

Under the FWC's current at-risk program, officers can inform a boat owner that his or her vessel appears likely to sink because of poor condition, or may break free from its mooring. But the program does not require the owner to act until the boat actually sinks and damages the sea floor.

"A vessel owner has no duty to maintain their vessel and can allow a vessel occupying waters of the state to deteriorate until it reaches a derelict condition," says a state legislative analysis.

Often, owners of older boats that sink disappear or lack the money to remove the vessel. "Some boats cost more than others to remove," FWC attorney Emily Norton said at a Key Largo workshop last August. "The big ones cost a lot more."

A November report from Monroe County Marine Resources says the county spent nearly $200,000 in boating-improvement money to remove 49 boats from November 2014 to October 2015. That was about 57 percent more expensive than the previous 12 months, office director Rich Jones wrote.

"One of the six vessels removed in June 2015 was a large vessel which was funded by an FWC Boating Improvement Program grant at a cost of $42,500," he reported.

The proposed legislation would allow officers to assess civil fines -- $50 for a first offense -- to compel the owner to make repairs to boats considered at risk of sinking. Boats at docks would not be targeted.

At-risk boats may be severely listing because of faulty bilge pumps, in overall poor condition, or have no means of navigating. 

Legislative committees reviewing House Bill 7025 and Senate Bill 1300 in the current session have unanimously supported adoption of the law this winter but they have yet to come to a full vote.

The Florida Keys FWC office has assigned two officers to derelict-vessel work, Dube said.