Who’s on the hook for abandoned boats?

STATEWIDE — Is the condition of your boat so bad where you believe it might be easier to just abandon it than to invest any money into preservation, repairs, salvage or upgrades?

In March, The Log published a story looking at abandoned boats as a potentially persistent problem. Shortly after the story published, a reader who wished to remain anonymous for this update opined the coverage of abandoned boats would qualify as a crime story. She asked about how government agencies enforce abandoned boats and suggested law enforcement should be more proactive in pursuing boat owners who might decide to throw in the towel.

“If I owned a useless boat, I might conclude from your article that abandonment should be my first choice behavior and one where there would be no consequences to me,” she wrote in an email to The Log. “It seems possible to me that the number of abandonments will rise if other readers draw the same conclusion.”

Accordingly, The Log looked into the enforcement of abandoned vessels in California.

Susan Sykes, who oversees the derelict vessels program at Cal Boating, said any boat owner who abandons a boat is breaking the law and would be financially liable for its disposal.

“It is against the law to abandon a vessel. Recreational boaters can be fined between $1,000 to $3,000 and the court may order the defendant to pay to the agency that removes and disposes of the vessel the actual costs incurred by the agency for the removal and disposition,” Sykes said, citing Section 525 of the state’s Harbors and Navigation Code.

Two representatives from BoatUS chimed in and said law enforcement is becoming more aggressive in targeting owners of derelict boats.

“Like any other property, they need to take care of their property. California does have penalties for abandoning trash,” said David Kennedy, senior program coordinator of government affairs with BoatUS. “Broadly, nationally, we know [abandoned vessels] are a problem.”

Kennedy added boaters need to plan how they will dispose of their boat from the day they buy the vessel.

“Law enforcement is going to come after you,” Kennedy said, pointing out city, county and state officials are more adept in tracking down abandoned vessels than in the past.

BoatUS spokesman Scott Croft echoed similar thoughts, urging boaters to be fully responsible for their vessels and take advantage of every resource available to maintain the craft.

“We really believe in responsible boat ownership. There are resources coming out of the recreational boating community,” Croft said.

One of those resources is the Vessel Turn-In Program (VTIP). Gov. Jerry Brown made the program, which established abandonment fines of $1,000 to $3,000, plus court costs, permanent in 2013.

Cal Boating advertises VTIP as “an alternative for boat owners to surrender an unwanted recreational vessel to participating public local agencies.” The idea is to give boat owners an option to surrender their derelict vessels to the state as opposed to walking away from the boat.

VTIP is funded by the Abandoned Watercraft Abatement Fund (AWAF), which provides grant money to local government agencies to administer a turn-in program.

Sykes added recreational boaters could also donate their unwanted vessels to charity or have it recycled or dismantled. Details about VTIP, donations and recycling are available on Cal Boating’s website, dbw.ca.gov.

“California state laws have established programs that promote safe, enjoyable and environmentally sound recreational boating, and not the abandonment of recreational vessels,” Sykes said, adding a recreational boater could be ordered by a court to pay the state a fine and reimburse any and all costs a government agency incurred to remove the boat from the water.

Processing a boat through VTIP costs the state an average of $1,600, Sykes said, while abandoned vessels are on the hook for $3,500, on average, through AWAF.

“This is a significant monetary savings overall, not to mention the savings of time and resources of the local public agencies processing these vessels,” Sykes said.

She added abandoned vessels impact public safety, wildlife, water supplies, plant species, soil, navigable waterways and tourism.

AWAF and VTIP are largely funded through Cal Boating’s primary funding source, the Harbors and Watercraft Revolving Fund, according to Sykes. Recreational boaters support the special state fund through a portion of fuel taxes, interest and principal repayment of Cal Boating loans by boating facility owners, and license and registration fees.

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