Junk boats litter crowded coast
Fewer marina slips and more boaters add up to vessels bobbing, listing and sinking in plain sight.
By MELANIE AVE
Published October 30, 2006
The small white sailboat with no mast and a broken window floats in the middle of St. Petersburg's Big Bayou, its hull covered in barnacles, its seats stained by bird droppings.
Near the water's edge, an 18-foot fiberglass boat, blanketed in brown silt, rests on the bottom of the bayou. Close by, a battered dinghy pokes from the mangroves like an oversized toothpick.
They are just a few of the thousands of abandoned boats cluttering Florida's coastline, junking up the picturesque scenery, endangering the environment and threatening boating safety. The state has targeted about 850 of the worst vessels for removal.
But water watchers say it's nowhere near the number of boats that have been cast off in recent years, forgotten or dumped by their owners.
"It's frustrating, dangerous, all of those things," said Mike Gulley, president of the Coquina Key Neighborhood Association in St. Petersburg, who sees sunken boats regularly in Big Bayou. "It's like an abandoned car on the street.
"It's there and it just deteriorates."
Authorities blame a combination of factors for the increase in trashed boats, from the eight hurricanes that have hit Florida in recent years, to boaters being pushed out of a dwindling number of marinas to a fuzzy definition of junked boat.
The problem is compounded by a boom in boat ownership that has outpaced the population growth. Florida now boasts the country's largest boating population, hitting a record of 1-million last year.
Counties and cities on both coasts are seeking more control over the waterways and the boats wrecked and anchored there.
They also are searching for ways to maintain the public's access to the water as private developers buy up mom-and-pop marinas and put pricey condominiums in their place.
"It's going on locally everywhere," said Thomas Ankersen, a professor at the University of Florida's Levin College of Law. "The average boater is being pushed farther away from the water."
Search for owners
State law allows boaters to anchor, or store their vessels, in the water. But boats must be in sailing condition and not obstruct navigation.
Local governments can remove vessels deemed derelict, defined as wrecked or junked, and they also can restrict people who live on boats.
But the problem is in deciding which boats can be removed and proving that someone is indeed a liveaboard.
"Just because a boat is an eyesore, that doesn't make it derelict," said Willie Puz, spokesman with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, the agency responsible for keeping safe waterways.
It also can be time-consuming to find a boat's owner and expensive to remove junked boats, said St. Petersburg marine officer Les Miller.
"What we need to find out is how to keep boats from becoming derelict," he said.
Armed with a new law that allows them to bypass the state in removing boats, many cities like Gulfport and Tampa are writing stricter ordinances.
In Tampa, about 50 boats of various conditions float in the Davis Islands Seaplane Basin near the Peter O. Knight Airport.
"Some of them, in the eyes of the owner, are works in progress," said Tampa police Sgt. Alan Draffin. "To casual observers, they might be junk."
In Boca Ciega Bay, somewhere in either Gulfport or St. Petersburg city limits, a 45-foot steel-hulled sailboat called the Lord Ship, with rust stains running like zebra stripes down the sides, has been anchored in the water for about three years. It often drags on the water's bottom.
Residents have asked the two cities and state to remove it and found the owner through a private detective.
"They've taken no action whatsoever," said Al Davis, 63, a former Army aviator and waterfront resident. "We can't get the folks in charge to respond."
Denis Frain, harbormaster of the Gulfport Municipal Marina, sees both sides of the issue. As more people store their boats on the water because of a lack of marina space, he said, it becomes more difficult for them to get to their vessels and keep them in good shape.
Nowhere to tie up
The exact amount of marina space is elusive but one thing is clear: It is disappearing.
At the St. Petersburg Municipal Marina, the waiting list for its 610 wet slips has increased by about 70 percent in the past two years. Some people will have a five-year wait.
In Pinellas County, the number of slips grew by 1,000 in the last decade while boat ownership grew by 10,000. In the past year, the number of marina slips dropped by 580.
Stanley March, a 71-year-old retired charter boat owner, anchors six boats in Big Bayou.
His reasons for storing the boats in the open waterway instead of a marina are simple: It's free and legal.
"One of the freedoms that still exist is to anchor your boat," said March. "That's one of the last freedoms left."
With the number of boats moored on the water on the rise, many boaters are pushing for the government to provide more marina space while homeowners are crying for cleaner waterways.
Many cities are installing mooring fields as alternatives to slipping marina space, putting in boat ramps and expanding dry and wet boat storage.
Pinellas County has taken an aggressive approach, purchasing a marina and an RV park with a boat ramp in recent months. It's also considering turning a lagoon filled with old boats into a marina.
To help address the growing boating issue, the wildlife commission and the University of Florida are co-sponsoring a waterways management conference this week in Cocoa Beach.
Most local authorities say they need more clear laws defining boats eligible for removal.
"Local governments don't really know where their authority lies," said UF's Ankersen.
As for slipping marina space, some people are discussing the possibility of locating marinas at state parks, said David Roach, executive director with the Florida Inland Navigation District.
Boating is an $18.8-billion industry in Florida, Roach said, and the state should protect it. "I do believe this is something the government can provide to their citizens to enhance their enjoyment of life in Florida."Melanie Ave can be reached at (727) 893-8813 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
1,010,370 Number of registered boats in Florida in 2005, a record high
749,323 Number of registered boats in Florida in 1996
35% Increase in registered boats during that period
Source: National Marine Manufacturers Association, Florida Department of Highway Safety, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission