The development was the most recent in the city’s chronic struggle with the issue, which in recent months seems to have gotten worse.
“In 15 years on the boat, this is the most derelict vessels I’ve seen,” Sgt. Rob Burkhart, head of the Gulfport Police Department’s Marine Unit, said recently after a patrol of the bay.
Derelict vessels create a navigational hazard, contaminate the water with leaking oil and diesel, and damage delicate sea grasses. They also can be the source of raw sewage from people using them as low-income housing.
Figures compiled by city officials indicate that since October 1, 2015, 13 derelict vessels have been identified in Gulfport and the city has spent $10,085 on towing and/or removal.
As of Tuesday, there were four derelict boats in Gulfport waters, one of which was in the process of being removed. Three were on the shore near Veteran’s Park and a fourth was submerged on its side several hundred feel offshore with its mast protruding from the water.
Harbormaster Denis Frain said the four were being removed by a contractor hired by the Pinellas County Water and Navigation Control Authority with funds provided by the state.
To help address the derelict-boat problem, Frain said a new program launched last month to eliminate duplication of efforts between Gulfport Police and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. The program aims to identify at-risk vessels anchored in Boca Ciega Bay before they become derelict.
“[The two agencies] want to cooperate on how best to bring some of these vessels in compliance,” he said.
The goal is to make contact with boat owners and educate them on what makes a vessel at-risk, as well as identify derelicts and keep tabs on criminal activity, FWC Officer Randall Bibler said during the first coordinated marine patrol by the two agencies on Sunday, October 23.
“If they’re going to live on a boat, it’s good to give them a heads up and then hold them accountable,” Bibler said, noting that many boaters may not know what constitutes at-risk or derelict.
A number of Gulfport residents, particularly some living on 31st Avenue, parallel to the waterfront, have been unhappy with the pace of the removal of derelicts. They even have a Facebook page manifesting their discontent: Citizens Against Derelict and Illegal Boats.
James Newcomb is among those. In an email to the Gabber, he said he and his neighbors felt they were getting the run-around and that no one was taking responsibility for removing the vessels.
“Owners up and down 31st have complained and are told it’s the harbormaster’s responsibility,” he said. “Harbormaster says it’s the city, city now says the county, and as I understand it, the county says the city.”
Burkhart said that although a number of derelict boats have been removed, others have taken their place, which gives residents the impression that nothing is being accomplished.
“We’ve done everything legally that we could to get boats out of there,” said Burkhart, who drove the department’s 24-foot rigid-hull inflatable Zodiac on the October 23rd patrol. “The problem is we’ve gotten boats out and they’ve been replaced. People don’t realize that.”
Although the derelicts off Veteran’s Park had been tagged with fluorescent orange stickers, the money to remove them wasn’t available, Burkhart said, noting that sometimes it takes “a couple of months.”
“The removal process isn’t fast,” Bibler said, and then added, “But Gulfport is 20,000 percent faster than the state.”
In the past, there was little officials could do about vessels that were clearly deteriorating. However, a new state law went into effect July 1 that allows law enforcement to ticket boats at risk of becoming derelict.
The “at-risk” designation factors in several issues, including whether the vessel is fully or partially submerged, is open to the elements, lacks a means of propulsion, has excessive barnacle growth on the bottom, and is registered by the state of Florida or documented by the U.S. Coast Guard, Bibler said.
However, tracking down the owners is often difficult. Some of the boats have no name or registration numbers; others are owned by people who can’t be found. Some are inhabited by people with no means to maintain them. That leaves Gulfport or state officials to deal with the problem.
As the patrol boat passed a neglected cabin cruiser covered with sea gulls and bird excrement, Burkhart noted that it had already been issued several tickets but no one was responding to the certified letters.
Although the goal of the new program is to talk to the boat owners, during the two hours this reporter patrolled the bay with the officers, only one vessel was found with people aboard – a couple from France on an immaculately maintained sailboat.
The officers said most of the vessel owners were likely watching the patrol from the shore, waiting for it to leave before returning.
“They know we can’t do a whole lot without them being on the boat,” Bibler said.