Everyone on the coast of British Columbia sees them – the broken hulks of boats. They’re almost as prevalent as discarded plastic containers, and far more perilous. Derelict vessels are a maritime nightmare – an eyesore and navigational hazard, and the source of toxic substances such as gasoline, diesel, heavier fuels and lubricating oils, battery acids and metals, paints containing lead and copper, even sewage. These neglected boats leach, leak, and spill into our harbours and bays.

The boats sit at anchor or tied to a mooring buoy, avoiding moorage fees. For months or years, they don’t move and no one is ever seen aboard. Rust and rot seeps out of them. Occasionally, an oil slick will appear around the hull. Then one day there’s a storm and the next morning the vessel is grounded on nearby rocks, or has crashed into the local marina. Sometimes, folks simply watch the ship sink.

The environmental risks are very real and entirely predictable.

Not Our Department

No official agency will take any precautionary action, until one of these boats sinks or until the oil spills or the vessel becomes a navigational hazard. By then, the damage is often done.

The Canadian Coast Guard [CCG] may raise the vessel, and tow it to some place for disposal – if there’s an oil spill risk. CCG can recover these costs with a claim to the Ship Source Oil Pollution Fund (SOPF). But no oil, no SOPF, and no Coast Guard.

The annual report of the SOPF contains a lengthy list of these boats that have broken up or sunk in harbours on Canada’s coasts. It makes interesting, if infuriating, reading.

Most of these incidents could have been avoided, had someone acted earlier. It’s not like no one saw them coming.

The fact is, people in harbour communities on the coast look at these derelict ships every day, and they do complain – to local, provincial, and federal governments, to environment ministries and the Coast Guard. If they get a response at all, it’s a deplorable game of bureaucratic hide-and-seek.

Tod Inlet is on the east side of Saanich Inlet, near Victoria. It has been accumulating derelict vessels – fishboats, sailboats, barges – for years. The Saanich Inlet Protection Society (SIPS) has been on the case – to get the derelicts removed, and have some controls put in place.

“We had no satisfaction from any level of government – just a lot of buck passing,” says Frances Pugh, SIPS President. “Government agencies are absolutely not doing their jobs.”

Out of frustration, the Central Saanich Maritime Society moved beyond writing letters to bureaucrats and ministers. It went to media. Reporters and cameras came to Tod Inlet.

Toward the end of June, the Coast Guard began removing the derelicts and now claims to be monitoring the situation.

Allan Adams, Maritime Society President, says, “It was a small victory.” He points out that only two of the twenty or more derelicts were dealt with by the CCG; a sunken gillnetter was raised and towed to Ladysmith for demolition, and a crane was removed from a barge. The barge remains. A third boat was removed by its owner.

Stafford Reid is an expert in marine emergency preparedness, and he understands the disharmony and inaction that results when a number of different agencies from two levels of government have fingers in the derelict boat pie. Transport Canada licenses vessels, but it is the province’s role to deal with the derelicts.

“Essentially, they are wastes causing environmental pollution and nuisance,” says Reid. “But the province does not want to admit this as their mandate.”

Calvin Sandborn, Legal Director of the Environmental Law Centre at the University of Victoria says, “The solution is simple. We need to establish recycling for boats, just as we have for cars, tires, newspapers, tin cans and other products. The province should establish a recycling program for boats – funded by charging boat purchasers an ‘Advance Disposal Fee.’”

Washington State’s Derelict Vessel Removal Program (DVRP) has removed about 220 boats since it started in 2003, more than half the inventory of derelicts. The annual budget of about $750,000 is recouped by placing a small fee on annual registrations and foreign vessel identification documentation.

Removing the wrecks is one thing but there’s still the problem of disposal. Pugh says that there are hundreds of old and unseaworthy fibre-glass boats on the BC coast and in backyards across the province. Fibre-glass lasts forever, unlike wooden and steel boats that eventually rot or rust back to nature.

One report gives the cost to have a 40-foot sailboat hauled to the dump and demolished, as ranging from $5000 to $10,000.

Adams, Pugh, and Reid agree with Sanborn that a disposal fee is a solution. Reid adds, “Don’t hold your breath…it took decades just to get monetary returns on pop and beer cans in BC.”

Arthur Caldicott is a writer and activist on energy issues in British Columbia and a frequent contributor to the Watershed Sentinel. BC's Harbour Hulks: The Curse of the Black Dragon was previously printed in the Watershed Sentinel, the independent voice for environmental news in British Columbia.

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