San Francisco’s Abandoned Yacht Crisis

Source: Wikimedia Commons

San Francisco Bay has become a dumping ground for unwanted boats. Irresponsible owners are abandoning old, dilapidated yachts that become navigational hazards and environmental threats as they sit idly, rotting and leaking fuel and waste into the waters.

A Floating Landfill

These deserted boats often sit low in the water, filled with garbage that spills out into the bay. Unable to move under their power, they become “a floating landfill,” says Sejal Choksi-Chugh, the executive director of SF Baykeeper, a local environmental group focused on preserving the bay. Fuel, sewage, plastics, and other trash spill from the boats into the bay persistently.

Source: Reuters

The Baykeeper estimates there are over 300 decrepit and decaying boats crowding San Francisco Bay and its various marinas and waterways. Both Richardson Bay and Oakland Estuary are cluttered with many hazardous relics of this type, with more being abandoned routinely, restricting boating channels and navigation.

This Exacerbates the Problem

Numerous vessels with phony or expired registrations washed ashore all around the bay and its adjacent waterways, indicating they were hastily ditched and deserted by irresponsible owners unwilling or unable to properly maintain them.

Source: TNS

State recreational boating regulators have struggled to adequately address and combat the mounting issue, as a patchwork of local laws about boat removal and ownership tracking make it difficult to identify and prosecute owners who intentionally scrub off boat registration numbers with solvents, then set their dilapidated boats adrift without consequence.

Hotbed for Criminal Activity

The increasing number of stagnant abandoned boats scattered around San Francisco Bay marinas and waterways has given rise to several anchor-out communities, an assortment of individuals who illegally camp on their barely seaworthy vessels as they cannot afford proper housing on land due to the Region’s exorbitant costs.

Source: Kiva Hanson

Last summer, the Oakland Estuary harbor reported a noticeable surge in so-called “pirate” crime including boat stripping, looting, vandalism, and petty theft blamed largely on unidentified perpetrators from nearby anchor-out groups, though some locals are also suspect given vigilante retaliation that ensued against the anchor-outs.

Costly Cleanup Efforts

Local municipalities and boating authorities often must pay hefty fees to formally place liens, and then coordinate the removal and disposal of deserted and abandoned boats around San Francisco Bay. Alternatively, some unscrupulous marina owners have been found to quietly sell off these boats for as little as $1 to dubious anonymous buyers not interested in legal registration or restoring them to working order.

Source: TNS

In nearly all cases, the substantial costs associated with proper removal, disposal, and environmental hazard mitigation for abandoned boats fall to unwitting taxpayers rather than the irresponsible vessel owners themselves, while the hazardous floating wrecks continue blighting shorelines and spilling waste until addressed.

A Taxpayer Burden

While the cleanup costs and related fees for cars abandoned on California roadways fall to the state’s taxpayer-funded Abandoned Vehicle Program, funded in part by vehicle registration fees, no such official recovery program yet exists at the state level for discarded boats despite rampant cases of abandonment.

Source: Times News Service

Instead, the costly burdens of removal, mitigation, and cleanup for deserted recreational boats fall haphazardly to an array of governmental and civilian agencies including the Coast Guard, local municipal parks departments, marina owners, and boating non-profits, most with very limited resources to apply to an ever-growing problem.

Damage to Sea Life

The increasing number of abandoned boats strewn about San Francisco Bay persistently leach, spill, or dump chemicals, battery acids, fossil fuels, unmanaged human biological waste, plastics, and other hazardous garbage directly into the waters, slowly damaging the area’s marine ecosystems over time.

Source: Jordi Chias

Aquatic species like seals, otters, and shorebirds often get entangled in submerged wires or debris from deteriorating boats, sometimes becoming injured or drowning outright as a direct result of the pollution and hazards caused by this neglect. Their natural habitats are gradually being degraded and harmed by the rotting abandoned boats.

Hazardous to Boaters

The growing legions of abandoned watercraft cluttering San Francisco Bay navigable channels and marina passageways cause property damage to properly docked boats during winter storms when the winds and rain push the unsecured floating wrecks around at random.

Source: Wikimedia/Frank Schulenburg

Worse still, abandoned boats stripped of their navigation light reflectors while set adrift pose formidable collision hazards for Bay Area commercial shipping traffic and recreational boaters, especially at night given limited visibility.

Rash of Sinkings

So many boats abandoned on San Francisco Bay by irresponsible owners end up sinking – either at docks or out in the middle of busy regional shipping lanes after being set adrift. Responsible boat owners are left paying higher annual insurance premiums necessary to offset insurance company payouts for sunken wrecks caused entirely by others.

Source: Shutterstock

Moreover, the increasing number of sunken boat hulks must also be expensively salvaged and removed by the Coast Guard or other taxpayer-funded agencies. California officials reported more than 225 registered vessels mysteriously disappeared below the waves, indicative of many newly-abandoned boats.

Push for New Laws

Fed-up local activists and boating enthusiasts believe stronger statewide laws are urgently needed to decisively curb and reverse the growing abandoned boat problem through mandatory licensing and registration that enables reliable owner identification and tracking.

Source: Unsplash

Potential ideas floated include levying mandatory disposal fees on all boat purchases to help fund and support the development of new removal programs or even a Boat Abandonment Task Force similar to the state’s Abandoned Vehicle Program, funded by boating-related use taxes. Stakeholders are unifying behind the legislation.

Time to Plug the Leaks

San Francisco Bay’s escalating abandoned boat crisis worsens dramatically year after year as the regional housing crunch forces more residents toward anchor-out status while irresponsible recreational boaters continue offloading their unwanted and unseaworthy vessels onto taxpayers rather than maintaining or properly discarding them.

Source: Unsplash

Stronger registration tracking, mandatory disposal fees, and enforcement laws at both state and local levels could help ease the growing glut of decrepit boats swamping regional waterways, shores, infrastructures, and taxpayers. If nothing changes soon, the scale of this problem will only expand exponentially.

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Matty Jacobson

Written by Matty Jacobson

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