Removal of vessels from Indian River Lagoon meets resistance by state regulators

Jun 10, 2008

Treasure Coast Palm--June 10, 2008

By Henry A. Stephens

INDIAN RIVER COUNTY — As the 2008 hurricane season begins, county coastal engineers are trying to remove eight derelict boats from the Indian River Lagoon, where they still lay after the hurricanes of 2004 and 2005 tossed them around.

Coastal Engineer James Gray would like to remove the boats before any new hurricanes can hurl them again in the coming months.

But because the boats lie in a stretch of the lagoon known as the Malabar-to- Vero Beach Aquatic Preserve, one of Florida’s 41 protected waterways, Gray said he needs a minor exemption from the rules protecting sea grasses and mangroves. The exemption would allow barges and cranes to remove the derelicts.

And it would be nice if state regulators could be more helpful, he said.

"Here’s a local government with qualified staff trying to do the right thing, and we get such resistance," Gray said.

Jeff Prather, spokesman for the state Department of Environmental Protection, said his agency wants to help remove derelict boats from the lagoon. They’re not good for the environment, he said.

But the DEP needs more information from the county to make sure contractors don’t damage the rest of the environment in the effort to pull abandoned boats out, he said.

"We just want them to dot their i’s and cross their t’s and protect the natural resources," Prather said.

Derelict boats are always a problem because they become hazards for other boaters, and yet they usually aren’t worth a salvager’s time and effort to recover, said David Roach, executive director of the Florida Inland Navigation District.

If a motorist were to walk away from a car on the roadside, he said, authorities would have it towed and a junk yard would trace the tag or vehicle numbers to the owner. If the owner didn’t claim it, he said, the junk dealer would keep it and sell parts or scrap.

But removing grounded or sunken boats is much more expensive than towing a junked car, he said.

"So they sit there," Gorham agreed. "A lot of times the owners try to get them out, but they don’t have the money."

Gray got a $25,000 grant in October from the Navigation District, matching it with county money for a $50,000 budget, to remove the boats. He said he now needs the DEP to permit a contractor to use barges, cranes or other means of removing the boats with due care for the surrounding environment.

Gray said a recent effort to get more data for the DEP, in fact, brought a surprise for him and county Coastal Resource Manager Jonathan Gorham.

They were out on the river in late May, armed with a 2005 map of 20 derelict boats and the DEP’s request to get geographic-positioning locations of the boats, the depth of water, proximity to sea grasses and other data.

They could only find eight of the boats, Gray said. The city of Sebastian had some removed, he said, but not all.

"If the owners had the boats removed, that’s all to the good," Gorham said. "But it’s also possible they’ve broken up and there could be debris floating all over the place. That’s not good."

He said a 21-foot sailboat, which was set on fire the evening of May 18 south of Capt. Hiram’s in Sebastian polluted the immediate waters with chemicals melting out of the fiberglass hull.

And another challenge, Gray and Gorham agreed, is a dive boat, the Deep Venture, on the third spoil island south of the St. Sebastian River. It’s high and dry, yards from the nearest water.

"It shows the power of a hurricane," Gorham said.

And it might have to stay there, they said, since there’s no way to pull it off the island or cut it into sections without disturbing wildlife.

Roach said the usual waterway authorities, such as the U.S. Coast Guard, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers or the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, typically back away from dealing with derelict boats.

"There’s a no-man’s land of responsibility for derelict vessels," he said.


The following eight derelict boats, down from 20 in 2005, are listed as being in the Indian River Lagoon within Indian River County:

•The Deep Venture, a dive boat grounded on the third spoil island south of the St. Sebastian River

•Partly submerged boat debris north of the spoil island where the Deep Venture is grounded

•Partly sunk skiff south of Capt. Hiram’s in Sebastian

•Grounded 21-foot sailboat, recently set on fire, south of Capt. Hiram’s, between the lagoon’s west shore and a spoil island

•Partly submerged hull, south of the 17th Street Bridge in Vero Beach, in mangroves on the lagoon’s west shore

•Blue and white Bowrider, north of the St. Lucie County line, on the lagoon’s west shore

•Overturned boat, south of 69th Street, Winter Beach, in mangroves on the west shore

•Blue sailboat, north of the Barber Bridge, Vero Beach, on the lagoon’s west shore

Indian River County Coastal Engineer James Gray