In the years since Hurricane Florence ravaged North Carolina’s coast, hundreds of abandoned and broken-down boats have been removed from coastal waterways in the state.
Since government agencies and a nonprofit partnered up in the months after Florence to get unwanted, dilapidated vessels out of coastal waters, those waterways have been cleared of more than 300 of nearly 500 abandoned and derelict vessels cataloged after the September 2018 hurricane.
A small number of local governments have initiated and overseen the removal of 40 such vessels from within their jurisdictions and more are stepping up efforts to manage on a local level junked and abandoned boats.
Just days into the New Year, North Topsail Beach aldermen unanimously adopted an ordinance granting its police department authority to get rid of abandoned or derelict vessels in navigable waters within the town’s jurisdiction.
North Topsail’s fellow island towns are expected this month to follow suit.
And while the numbers of these eyesores in waterways have greatly dwindled since 2021, there will inevitably be more vessels left abandoned and broken down that will need to be removed.
That prospect has shifted the focus on keeping the state’s coastal waters free and clear from derelict vessels by taking a proactive approach, one being promoted to state legislators to create a permanent, state-run program designed to encourage boat owners to turn in their unwanted vessels.
“I think we’re doing a really good job of removals and we have to maintain that, but now focus on the prevention aspect as much as possible,” said Ted Wilgis, coastal scientist and marine debris program manager for the North Carolina Coastal Federation.
The Coastal Federation, which publishes Coastal Review, and the North Carolina Division of Coastal Management have overseen the removal of more than 100 boats since March 2021.
Nearly 200 derelict vessels have been removed or are under contract for removal by the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission since that same year. The commission was given legislative authority to investigate, inspect and remove abandoned and derelict vessels in 2020.
“Right now, we’re kind of putting a patchwork together because we don’t have a permanent program and a funded program,” Wilgis said. “We are trying to come up with other ways to fill those gaps so having local governments, municipalities institute a program is a very good step, but there will still be some gaps in the coverage and not every jurisdiction can afford to go out and assess the vessels. Some jurisdictions don’t have that money. So, unless fines cover it, they just can’t do that. And, it’s a lot of work.”
North Topsail Beach Town Manager Alice Derian said in an email that the town has recently partnered with the Coastal Federation to remove rigging from an abandoned shrimp trawler in New River Inlet.
The newly adopted ordinance allows “the Town to have a process in place to address any potential future issues and is another measure the Town is taking to protect our sensitive coastal habitat,” Derian wrote.
Surf City Police Chief Phillip Voorhees last month asked town council members to adopt an updated ordinance giving the department the power to have derelict vessels pulled from waters within its jurisdiction.
He explained in a telephone interview that while the town has not had serious issues with abandoned vessels cluttering local waters – only a handful have been removed since 2018 — “We just needed to be able to have a recourse and to have it removed besides looking to our federal or state partners for help.”
“This just basically gives us the authority to be able to remove a vessel if we have to,” he said. “This is really so that we can keep our waterways open and safe, and reduce environmental impacts from any type of fuel or sewage or toxic material getting into the waterway.”
Voorhees asked the town council to repeal the current ordinance regarding abandoned boats, one that outlaws derelict vessels in Surf City waters, but stipulates that only the owner of the boat may remove it.
The North Carolina General Assembly last year approved a measure granting all three towns on Topsail Island authority to adopt ordinances that gives the towns jurisdiction over removing abandoned boats from waters within their town limits.
Surf City’s proposed ordinance defines abandoned vessels as those moored, anchored or “otherwise located” for more than 30 days within a 180-consecutive day period. Unattended boats deemed in significant disrepair, at risk of sinking, and a concern to the public and environment are also regulated in the proposed ordinance.
Violators face civil fines of $100 per day and criminal misdemeanor charges under the proposed rule.
Boat owners will be required to remove a vessel within 10 days after being contacted by the police department to avoid being fined. Fines have to be paid within 30 days.
“I would try to work with the vessel owner because I want to get the vessel removed,” Voorhees said. “I don’t want to get to the point where we’re giving fines and charging people. I want to get the vessels removed and make sure there’s no impacts to the environment and for the safety of other boaters.”
The proposed ordinance is expected to be considered for adoption at the town council’s meeting Wednesday.
An “almost identical ordinance” will be presented to the Topsail Beach Board of Commissioners during that board’s meeting that same day, according to Topsail Beach Town Manager Doug Shipley.
The towns plan to pass costs associated with removing junked and abandoned boats to the vessel owner.
Costs can be substantial depending on the size of the vessel, location and whether extra precautions have to be put into place because of potential hazardous environmental impacts.
Marine services firm Sea Tow estimates the cost to remove a vessel at about $300 per foot. Additional fees may be incurred depending on whether a boat needs to be stored or demolished.
The Wildlife Resources Commission has been appropriated more than $2 million to address and remove abandoned and broken-down boats along the coast.
Since 2020, the Coastal Federation has received more than $3 million in state and federal funds to remove junked vessels and hundreds of tons of marine debris littering coastal marsh lands and cluttering spoil islands.
“You’re talking millions of dollars that have been spent on cleaning up a lot of vessels,” Wilgis said. “I don’t know what the percentage is, but it’s fairly high in the sense that people have walked away from these and so that’s just not fair to the environment and it’s not fair to the taxpayer to have people foot that bill for something that could have been done a lot better.”
The goal, Wilgis said, is to create a comprehensive, permanently funded program overseen by one state agency that supports and works with local jurisdictions.
“We want to make sure that there’s layers of coverage for these vessels and we’re not just kind of trying to fill in the gaps that we have,” he said. “I would say that all the partners, especially the (North Carolina) Division of Coastal Management and Wildlife Resources Commission have really dedicated a lot of time and effort to this and they’ve been incredible to work with. Everybody wants a good program. The hard part is figuring out a way to do it that is fair to the owners and also protect the state and protects our environment. We’ve made a lot of good progress. We want to keep that momentum going and we will get there.”