|"Kids were playing on it, its nets were still out, and it posed a real danger to safety and health, and navigation."|
|Charles "Buck" Bennett,
Georgia Coastal Resources Division
When vessels sink or are abandoned in coastal waterways, they can result in marine debris, threaten navigation and fishing, and have environmental impacts. Many boats sit for years—or even decades—and if cleanup or removal is undertaken, it is often state and territorial governments left holding the bill.
The Georgia Department of Natural Resources (DNR) is leading the effort in that state to inventory and prioritize abandoned and derelict vessels using a geographic information system (GIS), and has developed an ArcIMS application–based website to keep the boating public informed of these coastal hazards.
"What scares me the most," says Charles "Buck" Bennett, compliance and enforcement manager for the Coastal Resources Division of the Georgia DNR, "are the shrimping vessels. Their debris often floats about two feet below the surface of the water, and you could hit it running full throttle in the middle of the channel and not know it's there."
Ten dangerous vessels along Georgia's coast have been removed, and there are plans to get rid of more of the 102 vessels documented along the state's coastal waterways. Efforts are also underway to prevent vessels from being abandoned in the first place.
As the shrimping industry in Georgia has declined over the past four or five years, Bennett says there has been an increase in sunken and abandoned vessels. Many of the aged boats would cost more to fix or salvage than the vessels are worth. As a result, owners have abandoned vessels, and some have gone as far as stripping everything of value, removing identification marks, and deliberately sinking or burning them.
"If they are truly sinister," says Kevin Brady, legal associate for the Coastal Resources Division, "they laden the vessels with everything of a caustic nature, such as old paint, batteries, and old tires, so that it becomes a garbage dump before they sink it."
Bennett notes vessels that have been moored and then abandoned often break away during storms and "become floating nightmares." One vessel that was broken up by a storm in January left debris along four miles of Jekyll Island beaches. The state had to pay for pickup and disposal of the wreckage.
While shrimp trawlers "seem to be the poster boy for the problem," there are also problems with other vessels, says Brady. The more than 100 vessels abandoned along Georgia's coast include barges, cranes, and recreational vessels such as sail- and speedboats—all identified as having no significant historical value.
"This is a problem in all the states and territories," notes Brady. "It's not just a problem in our region."
The issue came to a head in Georgia two years ago with the wreck of the Treasure D in the Wilmington River in Savannah, Georgia.
"There was a public outcry," says Bennett. "Kids were playing on it, its nets were still out, and it posed a real danger to safety and health, and navigation."
As is often the case, the owner of the partially submerged shrimp boat didn't have the money to remove it.
According to Brady, sunken or abandoned vessels typically are not covered by insurance policies. If vessel owners can be tracked down, they can escape financial responsibility through bankruptcy laws or "a clause in federal maritime law that limits an owner's liability to the value of the ship and its contents. Since most abandoned vessels are valueless, the owner's liability is zero."
During the 2006 legislative session, $180,000 was appropriated by the Georgia legislature to remove some of the derelict vessels along the state's shore.
A team was formed that includes members of DNR's Coastal Resources Division, Environmental Protection Division, and the Wildlife Resources Division Law Enforcement Section to catalogue, evaluate, and prioritize the vessels for removal.
The first step was to document what was out there. "We set out with a partial list of 48 or 50 vessels, and we worked to find as many as we could," Bennett says. They did everything from searching U.S. Coast Guard information to "physically getting in a boat with side-scan sonar and going out at low tide."
Local boaters and charter fishermen were recruited through newspaper articles, departmental publications, and personal contacts to help identify additional vessels.
To facilitate and more accurately document the location of the vessels, DNR applied for and received an ESRI grant for a Trimble GeoXH 2005 Pocket PC and ESRI's ArcPad software.
The mobile geographic information system (GIS) unit was placed on the deck of a small research vessel or was hand-carried into the marsh or water to accurately mark the location of a sunken or derelict vessel.
Digital photographs or side-scan sonar images were made of various wrecks for use on a website that allows boaters to see the water hazard as it exists.
Bennett notes that the site will be updated regularly to add or remove derelict and sunken vessels, and additional information, such as impacts to marsh vegetation or from fuel and oil leaks, will be collected. The site may help division staff members, local governments, and others in assessing marine debris.
Once the vessels were documented, the team individually prioritized the wrecks by assigning numerical values for issues such as hazards and impacts to fisheries. The group then went through the justifications for each vessel, plotting the resulting rank on an Excel spreadsheet.
"Basically the highest number was the most dangerous, and the lowest was the least," says Bennett. Using this methodology, the DNR used the funding from the state to remove the two most dangerous vessels—the Treasure D and a barge.
The Coastal Resources Division has been able to work with permit applicants to voluntarily remove abandoned vessels as part of an expedited permitting process. Vessels also have been removed by a marina operator and vessel owners.
Determining the Risk
Another goal of the Coastal Resources Division is preventing vessels from becoming derelict or abandoned in the first place. Staff members are meeting with the fishing industry and Coast Guard about the problem and are trying to generate funding for a boat buyback program. A new Georgia law restricts the ability of the owner of a sunken or abandoned vessel to register another boat or car in the state.
"We empathize with the fishing community," Bennett says, "but there needs to be responsibility on the owners for their vessels."
He adds, "We're trying to head off some of the problems, but it's not something that will happen overnight."
To view the Georgia DNR website on sunken vessels, point your browser to www.gadnr.org/dev/imf/?site=sunk. For more information, contact Charles "Buck" Bennett at (912) 264-7218 or email@example.com.