A new program in the Keys aims to help boaters dispose of "end-of-life" boats — those that are in poor condition but still floating — before they are abandoned and become an expensive problem for the county.
The Vessel Turn-In Program would be the first in Florida, though not the first in the country. The Keys were chosen "because we have so many of them and they cost so much to remove," said Richard Jones, the county's senior resources administrator.
Last year, Monroe County spent more than $283,000 removing derelict vessels — those that are abandoned, sometimes either sinking or underwater.
The program would apply to boats between 16 and 40 feet long. It is free to boat owners who can't afford to dispose of their vessels on their own.
The idea is to prevent boats from becoming derelict in the first place. Monroe County has the most derelict vessels in Florida, and its waters are part of a national wildlife sanctuary and two national wildlife refuges.
Derelict vessels aren't just expensive to remove — they can also hurt the environment either through leaking fuel or other substances on board or from physical damage. If the state or county can find the vessel's registered owner, that person can be charged with fines or even a crime.
"Derelict vessels are just a nasty thing," said Phil Horning, who runs the derelict vessel program for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. He said the program's goal is to avoid the nastiness, both in the water and in court.
"A lot of people want to do the right thing, but they just don't have the opportunity for it," Horning said.
The vessel turn-in program is intended to provide that opportunity. The first turn-in event is planned for Nov. 4 in the Lower Keys.
"The main goal is to reduce the number of derelict vessels in the Keys, but also to see if we can get a shift in boater behavior, to get boaters to recognize that they need to think about the ultimate disposal of their vessel at the end of its life," Jones said.
The grant, funded by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, provides $100,500 for the first year of the pilot program. It's expected to run for five years.