As Economy Sinks, Boat Owners Abandon Ship Around Miami -- And We Pick Up the Tab

Categories: News

The rusted prow of a 35-foot boat juts out of the water's edge in Maul Lake, a placid pool just a stone's throw from US-1 and 163rd Street. Its cabin windows are shattered, its hull is tangled with reeds and its roof is streaked with lime green spray paint.

derelictvessel.jpg
via Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission

Perched on a coral rock across the water, Officer Jorge Pino shakes his head.

"That was someone's dream," says Pino, a Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission officer. "Someone probably dumped their life savings into that vessel."

But like hundreds of other boat owners who've found themselves underwater in Florida's disastrous economy, whoever owned this Maul Lake wreck probably decided it was easier to abandon ship than to keep paying thousands in docking fees and maintenance.

Fish and Wildlife officials have already identified 1,500 derelict boats around Florida this year - and many fear the problem will only get worse until the economy recovers. Officials plan to remove twenty newly abandoned boats around Miami-Dade by June.

It's bad news for taxpayers. Each boat recovery operation can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. The state legislature recently granted $1.5 million to the agency to deal with the derelict boat problem -- and it may not be enough to keep up with the abandoned ships, which threaten shipping lanes and pollute waterways until they're removed.

"We wish boat owners would simply be responsible for their vessels," Pino says. "Don't burden me and the taxpayers of Florida with having to pay with having to fix your mess."

Pino's agency does try to track down the marine scofflaws littering Florida's waterways with derelict boats. The agency has six full-time officers just investigating derelict boat cases around the state, including one based in Miami-Dade.

Like a car, each boat has an identification number on the hull that officers can use to find owners. If negligent owners are caught, they face misdemeanor charges and fines equal to the costs of removing the boats.

But many former sea-goers file off the ID numbers and remove the boat's name before scuttling the ship.

"Those who are less than scrupulous or honest will remove the numbers, which leaves us without a lot of options in tracking them down," Pino says.

Eventually, a barge maneuevers its way to the waterside and a contract crew dredges the decaying cabin cruiser from the shores of Maul Lake. After Florida Fish and Wildlife officers investigate, the boat will be sent to a junk yard and dismantled.

"That's a pretty big boat. You could probably could even have lived on that boat," Pino says, sounding wistful, "in better times."
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