Abandoned boats causing major environmental problem in South Florida waters

MIAMI-DADE COUNTY, Fla. – More and more Floridians are buying boats and enjoying our unlimited access to the ocean, but not everyone is a responsible boat owner.

Authorities have their hands full removing and destroying derelict vessels that are clogging up our waterways, creating navigational and environmental hazards.

One recent hot august morning, an abandoned boat was pulled from the depths of Biscayne Bay.

“They put divers in the water, they place straps around the vessel’s hull. They use a barge mounted crane to lift the vessel up to the surface,” said DERM Environmental Resources Projects Supervisor John Ricisack.

A 25-foot sailboat just west of Miami Beach, east of Monument Island, that has been sunk for over two months, further degrading the health of a bay already under assault from too much pollution. Derelict vessels like this one are a big reason our bay is dying.

“Sewage, various household chemicals, fuel, all of that is released into the water when a vessel sinks,” Ricisack said.

Last year Miami-Dade County removed 51 derelict vessels from Biscayne Bay, but according to DERM that’s only a third of what’s down there.

Boats people just abandon when they no longer have any use for them or don’t have the money to fix them.

City of Miami Marine Patrol Officer Arturo Del Castillo is on the frontline of the county’s battle with derelict vessels.

So far, Miami-Dade County has identified about three dozen that need to be removed, but there are probably twice as many that haven’t even been documented yet.

“You go to Dinner Key, it’s like the wild wild west over there,” Del Castillo said.

Getting them out of the water is not easy.

It is a lengthy process that takes, on average, 45 days, slowed down by due process and government red tape.

“We have to locate the owner. If we did locate the owner, great. If we didn’t, then we go ahead and we tagged the vessel. The 45-day mark starts as soon as we place a sticker on that vessel,” said Del Castillo.

But more than just a pollution problem, these eyesores can be dangerous and even deadly.

Competitive swimmer Merle Liivand found that out the hard way last May.

When the Estonian born South Florida mermaid made her record setting 26-mile mono fin swim through Biscayne Bay, she almost crashed into not one but two derelict vessels.

“All of a sudden I almost hit myself with the head to this vessel and it was shocking to me,” she said. “I saw during my swim so many boats. I saw in North Bay Village, I saw it here, I saw it in Dilido Island.”

The mermaid recently joined City of Miami Marine Patrol out on the water, determined to raise awareness to get the dangerous sunken wrecks out of water as soon as possible.

“If that happens with me, it can happen with the jet skiers, it can happen with the people who just learning to swim and it’s a problem,” Liivand said.

It’s big problem in the waters off Watson Island, where Local 10 News cameras spotted at least four of them back in June.

“This vessel right here has been in the system now for three months,” Del Castillo told Local 10 News’ Louis Aguirre at the time. “We went ahead and contacted the owner. We have not received any notification from the owner, so we’re gonna go ahead and remove this vessel.”

That boat is still there as of the time this story was published.

The county needs the state to sign off on before it can be removed, and the county is still waiting for the okay.

“This vessel is going to be at least $10,000 to remove out of the water and demolish,” said Del Castillo.

Private contractors like Kearns Construction must bid to get the job.

Once a vessel is removed, it’s taken to a landfill where it’s destroyed after all recyclable materials are salvaged. But though state and county funding initially foot the bill, it is the last registered owner of the boat that will ultimately pay the price.

“The person can be arrested will be held responsible for whatever our costs are to have this work done,” Ricisack said.

And it’s a problem that’s only getting worse, exacerbated by the boating boom Florida is experiencing post-pandemic.

A record breaking amount of more than a million vessels are now registered in state.

Miami-Dade County is counting on everyone to step up, as the health of our bay depends on it.

“Be a responsible boat owner, take care of your vessel before it becomes certainly someone else’s problem,” Ricisack said.

Miami-Dade is currently number two in the state in the number of derelict vessels. Only Monroe County has more.

DERM says the reason we have so many is that law enforcement is over extended and there’s simply not enough marine patrol out on the water there to deal with not just this problem, but safety issues and crime.

You can help by being eyes on the water. If you see a derelict vessel you can report it to DERM by clicking here.

You can also report environmental issues by calling 311 or emailing baywatch@miamidade.gov.

About the Author:

Louis Aguirre is an Emmy-award winning journalist who anchors weekday newscasts and serves as WPLG Local 10’s Environmental Advocate.