A homeowner in Atlantic City paid a lot of money for a home on the back bay with a beautiful view of the water. What he didn’t pay for was the boat that was abandoned and lay on the rocky beach next to the house. Eventually, the boat was removed, but the question remains: How did it get there?
It’s a situation that’s difficult to fathom.
You pay thousands of dollars for a boat, pay for the storage in the winter and the slip fees in the summer, and pour even more money into upkeep and repairs. Then one day you decide you’ve had enough and let the boat drift off to sea with all that hard-earned cash until it hits shore, a rock jetty or another boat. How does it happen?
The whole situation can be summed up in one word: expensive.
It’s expensive to buy a boat, keep and maintain the boat, and it’s even expensive to get rid of a boat. The problem of abandoned and derelict boats is also exacerbated by storms and rising tides that break a boat from its mooring or dock to flounder in the water before landing on a jetty, a reedy landing or an ocean beach. And the owner is often in no hurry to pay for its return. But the majority of boats are just left behind, according to those with firsthand experience.
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There are approximately 175,000 registered marine vessels in New Jersey each year, according to the state Department of Environmental Protection, placing New Jersey 23rd in the nation for registered vessels. But New Jersey does not have a formal abandoned and derelict vessel program with dedicated funding, according to the Marine Derelict Program of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The state has enacted legislation that deals specifically with abandoned vessels under the Abandoned or Sunken Vessels Disposition Law placing fines for boat owners who refuse to deal with a boat they no longer want to keep. But enforcing that law is another story that leaves boats resting on beaches, marshes and land.
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“It’s absolutely an issue,” said Sandy McLaughlin, owner of SeaTow, a Brigantine company that is routinely called on to remove abandoned and derelict boats. “I would say that it’s a sporadic problem.”
McLaughlin believes the cause of the problem is novice boat owners who run into difficulty when they don’t check the weather, are not properly prepared for severe conditions and, most importantly, don’t have insurance.
“Most of the time it’s older boats with no insurance and they end up running aground and they don’t have the money to pay for the ungrounding and they leave it there,” she said. “They don’t have the money to pay out of pocket to have it removed.”
McLaughlin said that while it doesn’t happen regularly, she has had two calls about abandoned boats within the past week.
“It’s a very complicated and multifaceted problem,” said Lt. Alex Kloo, commanding officer at Coast Guard Station Atlantic City.
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That description is appropriate when you go through the many steps and costs involved with getting rid of an abandoned boat as defined in the state’s Abandoned Vessel Disposition Law. That nine-step process includes applications forms, notarized statements, various fees and purchasing notices in the newspaper to receive a title and permission to dispose of the vessel.
The Coast Guard’s responsibility only extends to a boat leaking a hazardous substance, such as oil or gasoline, or if the vessel is a hazard to navigation.
“Generally speaking, the Coast Guard will not remove the vessel,” he said. “Our job is to remove the threat or the environmental pollution problem, but oftentimes the vessel will be left in place.”
“Abandoned boats aren’t a huge issue down here in South Jersey,” said Brooke Handley, assistant river administrator for the Great Egg Harbor Watershed Association. “Its more of an issue up north where there’s more people and more boats to be abandoned. But it is an issue down here. They can be leaking fluids, they can be an eyesore, or they can appear to wildlife to be a suitable habitat to nest and live, which can be harmful to them.”
The Watershed Association has taken the innovative step of creating an interactive map of the Great Egg Harbor River that shows abandoned boats and other large debris, like floating docks and barges, that have found their way to the shores of the waterway. By clicking on a point designated as a vessel or debris, the map will reveal a GPS location, a photo and a description of the item.
“It kind of serves as a lost and found,” she said. “If somebody lost something they can check out our map and find it. And it works for us. We come out here once a year and may forget what we saw. And we can get together and say what are we going to need to remove this.”
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The Watershed Association put out a digital mailing to waterfront homeowners along the river with a link to the map. Surprisingly, several people responded. One resident said he had a Jet Ski dock that floated off his property and saw it on the map, according to Fred Akers, the association’s administrator.
Another woman contacted him about a dock that floated from her property that was built by a family member who had died. It was something that had an emotional value to her and she saw the dock on the inventory, Akers recalls.
“It wasn’t very big, so we went out on the marsh and towed it off and dragged it up to Corbin City and gave it back to her,” he said.
Prevention is key
Akers has been policing the river for several years, organizing community and scout groups to assist in cleanups and boat removal. They also maintain a stretch of osprey nesting platforms along the river and conduct educational tours for local groups and school programs. But as a nonprofit, the Watershed Association doesn’t have the authority to confiscate and remove a boat or dock.
He’s concerned that many municipalities don’t have the provisions to deal with abandoned boats either.
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“They have ordinances for abandoned buildings and abandoned properties, but they don’t have anything specific for derelict boats and derelict docks,” he said. “An ordinance needs to have a deterrent to motivate people not to get into a problem. One of the most important components is preventing it from happening in the first place. Prevention is a big part of a marine debris program.”
He warns that as sea levels rise and storms become more severe as a result of climate change, we’re likely to see more vessels torn from their docks and moorings and left to nature’s whim.
Marina owners also are faced with the issue of abandoned vessels. John Lazzara, owner/operator of Thompson Marine in Egg Harbor Township, sees boats each year left in his boatyard with the owner nowhere to be found.
“People will bring a boat here that they know they can’t afford or it’s not worth anything,” he said. “They’ll bring it here, they’ll dump it and they’ll disappear.”
According to Lazzara, the total cost of disposing of a boat, after the application and disposal process fees, is between $2,000 and 3,000. It’s cheaper for a boat owner to pay a few hundred dollars to a marina and then stop paying the storage costs and walk away, rather than face the disposal costs themselves.
He had one boat owner tow a boat to his marina claiming he wanted to work on the engine. The boat was brought on land, and the owner disappeared.
“Most of the boats are not worth anything, or the amount of money it would cost to fix it is more than what the boat is actually worth,” he said. “It’s easier for them to find a place to put it and walk away. Because it’s on marina property, we’re now responsible for the boat.”
At the moment, it’s a problem with no obvious solution.
“There’s really not much we can do. It’s a loss for us to get rid of the boat, but we have to make more room for paying customers,” Lazzara said.
One lawmaker in New Jersey is taking steps in Trenton to deal with the issue.
State Sen. Michael Testa, R-Cape May, Cumberland, Atlantic, is introducing legislation to permit thousands of dollars in state funds to be used to remove boats abandoned in the state’s waterways.
“Local governments and property taxpayers simply do not have the capacity to fund the lengthy and expensive process of hauling away and disposing of all the derelict boats that wash up in their communities,” Testa said in a recent statement. “It’s clear we need a state fund to pay for the removal of abandoned boats that litter our coasts, bays and rivers.”