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Pandemic Perpetuates Abandoned Vessels On SF Bay

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  • Pandemic Perpetuates Abandoned Vessels On SF Bay

    Why the pandemic may be causing a rising tide of abandoned boats in the San Francisco Bay

    image © Ben Derico

    Tessa McLean

    SF Gate

    Why the pandemic may be causing a rising tide of abandoned boats in the San Francisco Bay

    In early November, two boats washed ashore on the rocks just off the Safe Harbor Emeryville. Days of strong gales from the Pacific coast delivered the pair — one a white recreational sailboat with a sharp green stripe across its bow, the other an open-air fishing trawler with blotchy paint and fading block letters faintly spelling "AUDREY" across the hull — within 48 hours of each other. The mysterious appearance of captainless boats on the rocks has many baygoers intrigued.

    Slide 1 of 2: Water lapped through the deck, still full of buoys, rope and other fishing equipment, of Audrey while it sat on the rocks off Safe Harbor Emeryville on Nov. 13th, 2020.
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    1/2 SLIDES © Ben Derico
    Water lapped through the deck, still full of buoys, rope and other fishing equipment, of Audrey while it sat on the rocks off Safe Harbor Emeryville on Nov. 13th, 2020.

    The battered boats are not so mysterious, however, to Sejal Choksi-Chugh, executive director at SF Baykeeper, a nonprofit that patrols the bay monitoring for pollution and environmental threats. Speeding around in her patrol boat — SF Baykeeper emblazoned just above the water line — she says her team sees abandoned vessels, like the two marooned in Emeryville, almost every day; and the number has grown significantly since the pandemic began.

    Choksi-Chugh says every time there’s a recession, she sees an increase in abandoned vessels. Buying a boat can be surprisingly cheap, especially at salvage auctions, and many buyers misjudge the time, money and effort required for its maintenance. To complicate things, Choksi-Chugh adds that there’s no “real easy mechanism for anyone to return or sell their boats.” This has created backwards incentives for unscrupulous boat owners who’d rather abandon ship than resell or turn their boat in. When money gets tight, for many, the choice is easy.

    Some errant boats, she says, are adopted by new owners and have even helped shelter some unhoused people. But the vast majority wash ashore or, worse, sink — taking gallons of oil, diesel fuel and other contaminants down with them. For the cities, counties and parks that dot San Francisco Bay's shores, dealing with the environmental brunt and economic cost of these wrecks is adding strain to budgets already cash-strapped by the pandemic.

    Ditch your car on the side of the road and California’s Abandoned Vehicle Program (AVP), funded with annual vehicle registration fees, will pay to have it removed quickly — avoiding safety and environmental hazards, the DMV says. To recover its costs, the state can then place a lien against the car until any fees incurred by your vehicle disposal have been repaid.

    Boaters, however, aren’t subject to such scrutiny from the state. Unlike with their vehicle, when boaters elect to abandon their vessels on California’s waterways, there isn’t exactly a system like the AVP to remove them. Instead, getting rid of the dumped vessel falls under a patchwork of jurisdictions, including the Coast Guard, port authorities and park districts.

    Ron Kent, at the California Department of Parks and Recreation's Division of Boating and Waterways, says all new, motorized vessels across the state are registered for two years with either the DMV or Coast Guard, depending on the size and nature of the boat. The DMV handles almost all recreational boats. The Coast Guard, commercial vessels. But, as he points out, after those two years elapse, tracking registrations can get a bit hazy. Some people don’t renew or, as Kent says, “in the course of various person-to-person sales, new owners sometimes fail to register the vessel in their own name.” It’s hard to say how many boats like this are out there, but the growing presence of abandoned vessels on the bay shows just how easy it is to slip by.

    When the time comes that a boater finds their vessel too expensive or cumbersome, instead of removing it from the water, many set them adrift or simply walk away. These boats, deemed marine debris, can float for days and weeks. And unless they prove to be a navigational hazard, a difficult case to make for a boat once it's washed ashore, or pose an imminent environmental threat, leaking oil or gas for example, the Coast Guard has no legal need to remove the ship.

    That’s where this patchwork system comes back into contact with our two windswept watercraft out on the rocks in Emeryville. The fishing vessel, Audrey, if registered at all, would be recorded with the Coast Guard as a “documented vessel.” The sailboat, seemingly registered with the DMV, has California license decals and updated 2021 stickers. But, according to Sheri Hartz, Emeryville city clerk, after requesting a search of registrations from the DMV, the Emeryville Police Department “determined there was no owner of record for either boat.” The DMV says the stickers, if valid, may have been lifted from another vessel.

    Though the DMV says all boats registrations are updated with each sale or change of owner, just like a vehicle’s registration, the lived reality is that the lack of a comprehensive and adequate West Coast registration system is allowing many boats to easily slip through the cracks, as documented by a January 2020 report by the Pacific States/British Columbia Oil Spill Task Force, a consortium of state and local officials across California, Oregon, Washington, Hawaii, Alaska and British Columbia. The report also notes that these states and territories need to empower local authorities to pre-emptively fund removal before boats drift away and sink.

    Without a reliable system to track the unoccupied, abandoned ship to its owner, salvaging the wrecks now shifts to the city, county or park district where the boat happened to wind up. And cleanup isn’t cheap. In the case of these two stranded vessels, Emeryville paid Lind Marine, a private salvage contractor, $26,500 to clean up the wrecks, haul them off, crush them and dump them in a landfill. For a small city like Emeryville, that’s tens of thousands spent from an already tight budget.

    Speaking from her office in downtown Oakland, the lawyer turned environmental activist Choksi-Chugh says by this point, if you haven’t seen a wayward ship abandoned on the bay, it’s not because it’s not out there: “It’s probably because it's already sunk.” Once you train your eye, she says, it’s easy to spot the tips of masts sticking out of the water in marinas all across the bay. And the skeletons of shipwrecks from San Francisco to Oakland, San Jose to the San Pablo Bay are piling up, she says, because “there's no money to actually pull [them] out.”

    The issue of sinking ships has been a problem in the bay for so long that we’ve even built parts of the city on top of them. Most of today’s Financial District is constructed above sunken ships from the Gold Rush buried between fill land used to extend the city’s borders further into the bay.

    Those relics will likely remain beneath passing tourists and trolleys along the Embarcadero above, but for future wrecks, as the Pacific States/British Columbia Oil Spill Task Force report suggests, authorities should develop programs to get derelict boats out of the water before they sink.

    Here in California, SF Baykeeper teamed up with Ron Kent’s office at the Division of Boating and Waterways to establish the Surrendered and Abandoned Vessel Exchange, or SAVE, a grant reimbursement program that helps fund 90% of the removal costs local public agencies incur removing abandoned vessels. The program’s grants are funded by a combination of money from the state’s legislatively appropriated Harbors and Watercraft Revolving Fund as well as from the sale of vessels received through the state’s Vessel Turn-In Program. Kent says between 2017 and 2019, the most recent period with available data, 140 boats were removed from the bay and 618 from waterways across California through SAVE and VTIP. It’s substantial but not enough to keep up.

    While both of these programs are making good progress, Choksi-Chugh says it likely is only addressing part of the issue. The rest of the solution, she says, comes down to setting up stricter statewide registration requirements like the strategy implemented in Washington state and modeled by the Pacific States/British Columbia Oil Spill Task Force report. In addition, requiring boat owners to carry insurance, just like car owners, could help alleviate the costs on localities. SF Baykeeper believes insurers would likely be willing to take on part of the cost of salvaging boats in return for the large number of premiums they’d collect. When asked for their plans for enacting similar proposals here, the California DMV did not comment.

    About two weeks after they washed up in Emeryville, the mystery of where these errant boats came from remains. But the end of their story is much clearer. Emeryville did not receive a SAVE grant, saddling the city with the cost of cutting the boats into pieces, hoisting them into a barge and dragging them to be dumped in a landfill.
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