County officials and a contractor company have removed and demolished an abandoned vessel that has been in clear sight for anyone traveling to Fort Myers Beach for more than eight months.
The removal last week of the deserted boat, which was located off of Hurricane Pass between San Carlos Island and the mainland, is part of a ongoing sweep to rid the area waters of navigational and environmental hazards.
Named "Partner Ship" from Miami, the vessel was the fifth of 16 boats to be removed by contractor TSI Disaster Recovery from county waters under the current month contract. On a yearly basis, county officials have removed anywhere from 39 to 69 boats. In the past 10 years, the county has resolved 637 abandoned vessels and derelict vessels, spending $1.5 million to remove them.
The detailed process begins when county officials are alerted to the possibility of an abandoned or derelict vessel either from law enforcement, the public or by their own observations. From there, Lee County Natural Resources staff begins a procedure that involves boating out to the vessel, inspecting it and leaving a green tag on it with vital contact information. County then works with law enforcement in an investigation to attempt to contact the last-known registered owner to have him or her remove the vessel.
It is the responsibility for the boat owner to remove the vessel. If, however, officers are unable to find the owner to have them remove the vessel on their own, it is turned over to the county for removal and proper disposal.
"Once it is identified, the process has gone through and we have no other means of finding the owner and nothing can be done with the vessel, it is declared abandoned and it gets put on a list for removal," said Marine Services Project Manager Justin McBride.
"Partner Ship," a 35-foot wooden, gas-powered vessel, was tagged on March 13. All metal was stripped off of it.
McBride said either the boat name or some form of registration numbers (state or federal) are taken from the boat to discover who the last registered owner may have been. A case number is then assigned.
"Believe it or not, I would say we cannot locate the last registered owner on 80 to 85 percent of the boats that we identify and tag. When we do find them, they may say they have sold the boat five or six years ago, and it has changed hands multiple times so we can't ethically go after that person."
Fines may be levied to the registered owner if he or she is unwilling to remove the vessel or illegal dumping has taken place.
"If that person is unable or unwilling, then we do try to go after them with fines. We charge them the cost of the removal," said McBride.
That goes for both abandoned and derelict boats. Derelict boats are in a clear state of disrepair with no means of propulsion. Abandoned boats can have a motor and sail, but there has been no activity on that vessel within 30 days.
"If I can't tell that vessel has changed in some way, I'm tagging it as abandoned," said McBride.
The removal process involves taking a contractor boat out to site, hooking up the derelict boat and towing it back to a staging area for demolition. San Carlos Island Maritime Park near Trico Shrimp Company is one location that Lee County brings vessels to be demolished.
Even though every boat has been prepped for removal prior to towing, it is unknown how long the process from hooking a boat to getting it back to the staging area takes. Some metal is salvageable, but most boats are stripped very well prior to being deserted.
"Each boat is different. Some take 10 minutes, and some take a week," McBride said.
McBride informed that, in the state of Florida, it is the seller's responsibility to alert the tax collector that the vessel has changed hands, not the buyer.
"The buyer has to pay the taxes, but it will still be in the system that you have sold that boat."
While the Back Bay waters behind the Beach appear to be a prime graveyard for abandoned or derelict boats, County officials also remove boats from the Caloosahatchee River, canals in neighboring communities and other county waters. The program is not usually handled on a one-on-one basis, however.
"I typically wait until I have at least five or maybe six vessels on (the list) because that is a cost savings. You save on mobilization costs and getting the contractors out," said McBride. "The bigger a job you have to do, the less expensive each individual one is."
Some boats need immediate attention due to debris breaking off the vessel or fuel leakage that pollutes the surrounding water. A recent example involved a vessel that washed up on Lover's Key and was leaking diesel fuel. According to McBride, it was removed within 20 hours.
Others, which do not constitute an imminent threat, may sit for long periods of time, waiting for adequate funding sources to be procured.
"The majority of them usually end up in the mangroves or somewhere tucked away where the wind blows, but we do get a couple that become navigational issues. If they are a big navigational or environmental hazard, we have the means to get them on an emergency basis within the contracting," he said.
Deteriorating vessels still tied to a dock are not fair game. They need to be out in the public waterway.
"We don't have jurisdictional authority to go there," McBride said.
County officials put out a bid to a list of qualified contractors to determine which business gets the contract. Lowest bid usually wins out.
"They typically have 30 to 45 days to remove the vessels," said McBride. "If they are really spread out through the whole county, I'll give them 45 days. A 'normal' contract takes about 30."
Contractors are paid through grant funds provided by West Coast Inland Navigation District within the annual waterway development program. A 10-year analysis revealed the cost to be $100 per foot (length) for removal of the vessels.
After Hurricane Charley, sailboats were the leading boats to be removed. Now, the trend is back to power boats.
McBride warns that just because you see a boat in roughly the same spot in local waters doesn't mean that particular vessel is abandoned. You just can't remove a boat without exhausting all channels.
"If you see that boat once a week, it doesn't mean you see that person isn't working on it during the weekend," he said. "The local government is seizing property, and we have to make 100 percent sure that nobody has an interest in that boat before we seize it."
McBride has spoken to other administrators from other counties and states and found out Lee County is not alone in having abandoned boats. He doesn't believe our area stands out as problematic in this issue.
"In any community that has as much waterfront as Lee County has is going to have this problem," he said. "Is it a big problem? Yes. Is it an epidemic? I don't think so."
Abandoned and derelict boats pose a threat to the natural habitat, like impacting sea grass if they sink.
"Some of the boats have fuel on them. If they break up, they become navigational hazards," McBride said. "Literally, it is litter in the waterways. Not much worse then a boat full of diesel and oil in a bay."