Florida Targets Abandoned, Damaged Boats
TALLAHASSEE — Wildlife officials want to speed up the process of removing abandoned and storm-damaged boats from state waters, while complimenting residents for efforts to secure vessels ahead of Hurricane Idalia.
Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission officials on Wednesday outlined plans to ask for $7 million from the Legislature for a derelict-vessel removal program. Also, the commission will ask lawmakers to approve speeding a notice period for owners to take care of damaged and abandoned boats.
Commission Chairman Rodney Barreto said during a recent fishing trip on the St. Johns River he came across five derelict craft, which were an “eyesore” and an environmental problem.
During the fiscal year that ended June 30, state agencies reported handling 353 of the more than 420 boats damaged and abandoned after Hurricane Ian, 282 “abandoned migrant vessels” in South Florida and 270 boats from other areas of the state.
Col. Brian Smith of the commission’s Division of Law Enforcement, said most residents along the Gulf Coast heeded warnings ahead of Idalia’s Aug. 30 landfall and secured their vessels on the water or took them inland. The result, Smith said, is only 40 boats have been documented as left derelict by the storm.
“This shows that communities can do a huge part in helping out,” Smith said. “If you have the ability to remove your vessel from the water prior to a storm, the result is far fewer derelict vessels after a storm. So, this community did an amazing job of taking care of that.”
The Category 3 Idalia made landfall in the Keaton Beach area of Taylor County but also affected other areas of the Gulf Coast as it traveled north.
With the 2024 legislative session starting in January, Jess Melkun, the commission’s legislative affairs director, said the agency is seeking a change to get boat owners to act quicker.
The request would allow officers to post notification stickers on vessels identified as derelict, as part of a process to set off a 21-day clock in which owners can request administrative hearings to determine if the vessels are derelict. When it doesn’t receive responses from owners, the state can begin the process of removing boats at the owners’ expense.
Current law requires officers to make reasonable efforts to contact owners of derelict, at-risk or public-nuisance boats. If names and addresses of the owners are reasonably available, officers must mail notices to the owners before placing stickers on the vessels.
“This often requires that the officer make a second trip to the vessel to post the sticker notice once the paper notice has been issued or mailed to the owner,” Melkun said.
Barreto questioned if the process could be further shortened.
“Maybe there’s a different way we can do this, and maybe we’ve got to go change state law, but I mean we have so many derelict boats throughout Florida that it’s just cumbersome upon the agency,” Barreto said.