Opinion: Thousands of abandoned boats sinking into B.C. waterways are taking a heavy toll

Opinion: A national strategy for abandoned boats that empowers community leaders, led by local knowledge, is within reach

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Abandoned boats are a familiar sight in coastal communities. Also familiar is the feeling those communities have of not always knowing who the boat belongs to, or who to call to have it responsibly removed. One reason is an outdated licensing system that can make it difficult to determine an accurate chain of ownership for vessels, notably for the thousands of vessels, sometimes called derelicts, left abandoned and sinking into waterways along Canada’s shorelines, with the largest number identified in B.C.

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For vehicles, this would be the equivalent of having thousands of abandoned and decaying cars on the shoulders of provincial highways and dotted throughout local streets. Of course that would never happen. We have strict ownership registries that meticulously connect vehicles to owners.

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Canada’s national inventory of problem boats identifies nearly 1,500 vessels nation-wide, but it relies on voluntary reports to the Canadian Coast Guard. The true number likely surpasses 4,000 — and that’s just in B.C., according to Dead Boat Disposal Society, a non-profit dedicated to safely dismantling and disposing of vessels that are deserted and non-operational.

These abandoned boats take a heavy toll on waterways: they leach fibreglass, oils, lubricants, fuels, paints, PCBs, and other toxins that are onboard into the marine environment, and these poisons ultimately enter the food chain. They can also affect food security, when found near harvesting areas; they are a safety hazard, negatively impacting navigation; and can have a detrimental influence on local economies like tourism and fishing.

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Theoretically, none of this should be a problem because it is illegal to abandon boats in Canada. Yet there is no legislation that encourages owners to dispose of their vessels responsibly. Adding to the confusion is the absence of an adequate ownership registry, a shortage of proper disposal options for unwanted vessels, as well as a complex cross-jurisdictional reporting patchwork.

Most boaters are extremely responsible and do plan for eventually disposing of their vessels. However, if better options were accessible to support end-of-life planning, there would be fewer obstacles to decommissioning vessels in the proper way.

This year, the federal government announced heftier fines for owners who abandon their boats: up to $1 million for individuals and a maximum of three years in jail. But deterrents like these do little when you can’t determine ownership. Only one fine has been issued over the last four years, while the number of abandoned vessels grows.

The current approach to addressing abandoned or wrecked vessels is not working — and it’s expensive.

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Since 2016, the federal government has funded the removal and disposal of 500 vessels under the Oceans Protection Plan, and it announced $1.6 million in April to fund proposals to remove more. For its part, the province has removed more than 100 derelict vessels as part of its $50-million Clean Coast, Clean Waters initiative. Unfortunately, there are more boats than funding required to remove them.

But a better way is within reach — and it prioritizes local knowledge and labour.

If Bill C-344, is passed, it will create a national strategy, led by First Nations and local organizations, who are already championing initiatives to safely remove these abandoned boats, but who could benefit by being backed by a national strategy.

It would require a system to promptly and effectively identify the owners of vessels; legislation for boat disposal, including “turn in your boat” programs; fee evaluations to ensure that the true cost of removal and recycling vessels are covered, and incentivizes and provides resources to support all boat owners, while providing a clear framework that potential and future owners can count on.

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Empowering community leaders and ensuring local waterways aren’t negatively impacted by abandoned boats is on the verge of happening, but it isn’t guaranteed. If this matters to you, let your member of parliament know because a vote on this bill could happen any day now.

Near-term action means that neither the fragile marine environment, which supports biodiversity, nor local communities who rely on its health, will continue to bear the brunt.

Jacob Banting leads Clean Marine B.C., a clean boating program run by Georgia Strait Alliance that supports reducing the impacts of recreational boating on the marine environment; Christianne Wilhelmson is the executive-director of Georgia Strait Alliance.

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