BAY PINES, Fla. - Eric Johnson of St. Petersburg knows the waters on this coast better than most. For 40 years, he’s launched boats from War Veteran's Memorial Park in Bay. And over those years, he's seen his share of derelict, or abandoned vessels.
"Oh, it's gotten worse. A lot worse," says Johnson.
Right near the docks we counted five at-risk or derelict boats littering the coastline. One is partially submerged, posing a navigational hazard for boaters.
"You can't even see it. If you came across it at night, you'd run right into it. That's the bad part," says Johnson.
A Florida law aimed at making waterways safer and cleaner has been in effect for almost one year now. The At Risk Vessel law (F.S. 327.4107 ) went into effect on July 1, 2016. It provides an extra step to notify owners of damaged or abandoned boats before they become derelict.
The thought behind the law was that it would decrease the number of vessels becoming derelict while saving taxpayer dollars.
"They can't really do much about it. What are they going to do about it? They got rid of them over there by the hospital and they all just moved over here," says Johnson.
He is right. A few years ago the City of St. Pete cracked down on boat owners who parked or dumped boats in Hurricane Hole, which is the bay near the VA hospital and St. Petersburg College in Bay Pines. After all of the boats were removed, the city put up a floating barrier making it impossible to pass into the bay.
Still, derelict boats clog up other waterways, take away from the beauty of the coastline, and pose a safety hazard to people on the water.
"It's huge. It's a big mess," says Phil Horning who heads up Florida Fish and Wildlife's derelict vessel program in Tallahassee.
As of this publishing, there are more than 425 open derelict vessel cases in the state of Florida. But that number is nowhere near the actual number of derelict vessels in our waters.
The problem is, the problem never stops with the blame going to irresponsible owners, the economy, and storms. Horning estimates Hurricane Matthew in 2016 put upwards of 70 vessels in the waters off the Florida coast.
"All of the derelict boats that FWC investigates translates to thousands of dollars in man hours. It also takes our officers away from other things like helping to protect wildlife areas. There's a cost to the public, sure," says Horning.
"It's constant monitoring," says Officer James Boogaerts, Public Information Officer at FWC.
Officer Boogaerts gave us a tour recently of the waters around Bay Pines so we could see the derelict vessel problem for ourselves. It's more than an eyesore.
"They pose navigational as well as environmental issues to parts of the sea grass and marine life," says Boogaerts.
The only remedy is to remove the boats but that is incredibly expensive and something most boat owners can't afford. Horning says it is anywhere from $500 to $100,000 depending on the size of the vessel. If the boat is completely submerged, it's even more expensive to pull out.
This year, the state legislature awarded FWC a $1.4 million grant to clean up derelict vessels. Horning says the money will go a long way but it's not enough. He estimates the cost to clean up all of the derelict vessels in Florida waterways today would cost $3.5 million.
Under the At-Risk Vessel law, law enforcement officers can issue non-criminal citations to owners who allow their boats to become at risk of becoming derelict. The boat owner must correct the problem within 30 days of receiving the citation, or face stronger penalties.
$50 fine for a first offense
$100 fine for a second offense occurring 30 days or more after the first offense
$250 fine for a third or subsequent offense occurring 30 days or more after a previous offense
"The awareness of us being able to say, 'Hey listen, you're going to get a $50 fine unless you make some corrective action', it works," says Boogeart.
"This hopefully prompts the owner to rectify any issues with the vessel before it reaches a state of disrepair," says Horning.
Since the law went into effect and as of this publishing date, officers have written 166 at-risk citations statewide with the bulk of them being in Monroe County. FWC has not responded with the number of citations actually paid.
Under the law, a vessel is deemed to be at risk if any of the following criteria are met:
The vessel is taking on or has taken on water without an effective means to dewater.
Spaces on the vessel that are designed to be enclosed are incapable of being sealed off or remain open to the elements for extended periods of time.
The vessel has broken loose or is in danger of breaking loose from its anchor.
The vessel is left or stored aground unattended in such a state that would prevent the vessel from getting underway, is listing due to water intrusion, or is sunk or partially sunk
Vessel owners are also reminded to sell their boats properly. It's the buyer's responsibility to get the boat re-titled in their name. The seller is required to notify the Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles within 30 days that they have sold their vessel.
If you see a derelict vessel, call local law enforcement or FWC at (888) 404-3922.