Island County and the Washington State Department of Natural Resources are working together to clean up the derelict and abandoned boats that dot Whidbey Island’s coasts.
According to Kelly Zupich, coordinator of the Island County Marine Resources committee, the county and state department have removed four derelict vessels from Island County shorelines so far this year.
But it will be an expensive and time-consuming process to clear Whidbey and Camano islands of abandoned boats entirely; Troy Wood, the derelict vessel removal program manager with the state Department of Natural Resources, said there are 14 vessels remaining in Island County.
Clearing the shoreline of these dilapidated watercraft is a more involved process than simply hauling them away. Wood said the state contacts boat owners and encourages them to take care of their property on their own. If that doesn’t occur, the state must notify owners that their boat will be removed, then follow the legal process to take custody of the boat, which takes 15 days. Boat owners then have 30 days to appeal the decision.
Only then can the removal itself take place. Wood said the state department contracts with tow companies for smaller boats and salvage companies for larger vessels. The process for removing a derelict boat differs depending on the size, location and situation in which it is found.
Once the boat is removed and the water cleaned of toxins, the boat materials are recycled if possible, or taken to the dump if they are non-recyclable, such as concrete.
It is a costly process, and the expenses vary widely depending upon the situation and condition of the boat. Zupich said removals in Island County this year have cost between $21,000 and $42,000 per removal. Wood said these numbers are only for small vessels; last biennium, the state department removed a boat in Pacific County that cost $3 million.
The money for the removals comes from the state watercraft excise tax; while this tax used to go directly to the state general fund, Wood said the Department of Natural Resources recently successfully petitioned the state Legislature to direct some of the revenue from this tax to the derelict vessel removal program.
With the additional state funding, the department removed 314 vessels statewide last biennium. Wood said its previous record was 123 removals in one two-year period. There are currently around 300 vessels on the state’s list of concern.
Boats left to deteriorate in the waters of the Puget Sound area pose major risks to the health of marine wildlife and the environment.
“Boats tend to carry a lot of chemicals, metals and other pollutants which end up on our shorelines and in our waterways when a vessel is left to break down,” Zupich said.
In the waters surrounding Whidbey Island, these chemicals affect shellfish beds and juvenile salmon that stay in nearby estuaries, she added.
Wood further explained that these chemicals make their way through the food chain. Besides harming aquatic life, contaminants find their way into salmon and shellfish that humans eat.
“Everything on a vessel — paint, sealant and stuff like that — is meant to prevent life from growing on that vessel, so when you leave these vessels out there, all that stuff is sloughed off into the environment,” he said.
The boats also disrupt natural shoreline processes, create debris that is difficult to clean up and cause navigational hazards.
The best way to mitigate these deleterious effects is to prevent boats from becoming derelict in the first place. Wood said a statewide vessel turn in program exists, in which boat owners who can no longer keep up with the maintenance of their boat can turn it over to the state for disposal at no or little cost to the boat owner.
Zupich said while the Marine Resources Committee searches for abandoned boats as often as feasible, Whidbey residents can assist the committee with locating derelict vessels by reporting boats they believe to be abandoned at mycoast.org/wa/boat/report or dnr.wa.gov/vessel-reporting.