Along with the more visible debris on the side of the road, our waterways were not spared Hurricane Irma’s impacts — strong winds and waves destroyed boats in our sensitive coastal habitats. Boats all over the state were torn from their moorings and tossed far and wide. Many were simply abandoned to become an especially troublesome form of “marine debris.”
Removing these boats, usually referred to as derelict vessels, without causing additional damage takes effort. Luckily, through a collaboration between the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), the United States Coast Guard, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission’s Division of Law Enforcement (FWC) and private contractors, great care is being taken to protect Tampa Bay’s seagrasses, coastal wetlands and waters.
Derelict boats are a common issue every year, and there is never enough money to remove them all – and not all of them will be removed as quickly as some people would like. It can be tricky to determine which boats were grounded by Irma, and will likely cause future damage. Some boats were derelict prior to Irma, and are the subject of current litigation, so they could not be removed during the current effort. In Tampa Bay alone, 86 boats were removed and stored in a large yard in Tampa.
Removing these boats is complicated from multiple perspectives – without including the sheer volume of extra boats from the storm. Private ownership issues (and the owner’s responsibility to remove the boat from public waters) as well as the lack of funding for what can be a very expensive process are both difficult issues. Sometimes, simply identifying the responsible owner is a huge obstacle.
These dedicated teams were on the water for 2 to 3 months, including weekends, with the partnerships still going strong and making progress in clearing these boats from the bay and other coastal waters. Tampa Bay was spared the worst. Across the state, approximately 2,600 boats were displaced due to the hurricane, the Keys being the most impacted by having approximately 1,600 displaced boats. These numbers are preliminary, as efforts are still ongoing.
Each entity plays a critical role in the process of removing derelict boats, usually referred to as derelict vessels. The Coast Guard coordinates and oversees the private contractors. DEP ensures impacts to natural resources are avoided during removal. FWC identifies derelict boats and monitors compliance with regulations governing removal. The private contractors play the most visible role, bringing in barges with cranes to remove the boats. Even though each entity plays a different role, the collaboration is proving effective.
Many of the private contractors that are working to remove these storm-related derelict boats are fishermen themselves, who come from around the country and understand the need to avoid damaging productive fish habitat, including important benthic (bottom) habitats with active invertebrate colonies, seagrasses and coastal wetlands.
Boats of various sizes have been removed. Some are more complicated than others; each presents a different challenge and unique issues. Chart plotters on DEP’s boats were particularly helpful, displaying 1-foot contours of the bay bottom to determine the best way to approach each boat and minimize impacts to surrounding resources. Some boats were abandoned long before Irma, but the storm transported the boats to environmentally sensitive areas.
On this particular day, crews departed from the Gulfport marina to initiate removal of a large sailboat in Tierra Verde. One of the great success stories of Tampa Bay is the recovery of its seagrass beds, and this sailboat happened to ground next to a very healthy turtle grass bed. Local knowledge of the bay bottom and the seagrass beds, drawn from biologists in the field, were paramount to the success and strategies developed daily by teams working on removing derelict boats. The private contractors were more than happy to use DEP’s information to avoid impacting the grass beds during the staging and salvage process.
Derelict boats can create navigational hazards and are generally considered unsightly to people living or recreating nearby. But the most serious threat they pose is from leaking fuel and continued habitat damage from future storms. Removal of these boats before they become further entrenched in our marine environment is the best option to minimize cumulative impacts that can occur over years as the boat slowly falls apart.
It’s not as simple as securing a chain to a boat and pulling it out, which could cause more damage to the bay. Barges with cranes are utilized to lift smaller boats, or pieces of dismantled boats. Additional protective techniques, referred to best management practices (BMPs), include:
- Turbidity curtains to minimize sediments that get stirred up by the removal process, minimizing impact to habitats outside of the work area
- Scheduling work around the tides to take advantage of higher water
- Using flotation bags to make the derelict boat more buoyant.
Additionally, some larger boats need to be taken apart to safely remove them, and teams must have necessary equipment on scene if pollution response is needed, such as absorbent materials that soak up fuel or oil spotted in the water. Even divers get in on the action and may watch to ensure safe removal.