Ships sink with economy

by Petty Officer 3rd Class Connie Terrell

BOSTON -With phrases like “bail out” and “recession” being used in homes across the country, major companies going out of business, and foreclosures hitting close to home, Coast Guard inspectors worry the economy may be pushing some mariners to intentionally sink their vessels offshore or abandon them at the pier.

“We understand mariners are experiencing financial strains, but illegally sinking or abandoning your vessel is not the solution,” said Lt. Cmdr. Keith Hanley, the Coast Guard First District chief of inspections and investigations.

Hanley said there are several problems surrounding the intentional sinking of a boat, known as scuttling.

“We have two main concerns when a boat is scuttled: safety of mariners and the effect on the environment,” said Hanley.

When mariners scuttle their vessel they also put the lives of responders at risk, in addition to their own.

“The Coast Guard responds to all calls as though someone’s life is in danger,” said Lt. Cmdr. Marc Sennick, from the First District. “Scuttling not only puts rescuers’ lives at risk, it also takes time away from responding to actual emergencies and wastes thousands of tax dollars.”

Additionally, fuel, oil and other chemicals aboard a vessel may leak into the water, causing damage to the environment and marine life habitats.

Scuttled vessels may also create a hazard to navigation if they are sunk in shallow water and not visible to mariners.

Abandoning poses some of the same problems as scuttling, Hanley said. In addition to the risk of pollution and the hazard to navigation, they endanger public safety, take up valuable dock space and can end up costing boat and pier owners as well as taxpayers thousands of dollars.

When the price of fuel went up but the market value of fish didn’t increase with it, some fishermen couldn’t afford the high cost of maintaining and operating a boat and may have felt the only answer was to walk away, said Rodney Avila, a marine safety instructor and veteran fisherman in New Bedford, Mass.

“We don’t have the capacity to berth these derelict boats,” said Kristen Decas, the port director of New Bedford. “We need all the space we can get.”

When Decas became the port director two years ago, there were 18 abandoned boats in New Bedford.

Decas said some mariners must berth their boats farther away because abandoned vessels take up dock space.

Because removing each boat could cost up to $26,000, Decas is working with the chief of police and the district attorney and mayor’s offices to require boat owners to remove their derelict boats.

With the threat of jail time and imposing $500-a-day fines, Decas said the number of derelict vessels in New Bedford has dropped from 18 to three.

“We don’t want to see derelict boats in our community and now we have a way to stop it,” Decas said.

The Coast Guard is also working to prevent mariners from scuttling and abandoning their boats.

“We thoroughly investigate all cases of suspected abandonment and scuttling,” Hanley said. “We take this problem very seriously.”

Scuttling is considered a federal crime and, depending on the location, could be considered a state crime as well.

Individuals who scuttle their boats could face up to six years in jail and fines of $250,000, said Lt. Christopher Jones, an assistant legal officer with the First District legal department. Fines for corporations may reach up to $500,000.

For some mariners, there may be a legal way to safely dispose of an unwanted vessel.

Legal scuttling is allowed under the Marine Protection, Research and Sanctuaries Act, also known as the Ocean Dumping Act, when a permit is obtained from the Environmental Protection Agency.

Because of the busy fishing industry and ocean’s characteristics, scuttling a vessel in the Northeast is discouraged, said Ann Rodney from the EPA. Scuttling may negatively impact the ocean’s natural topography which provides a good habitat for marine life, and although the vessels are required to be sunk in at least 300 feet of water, may still foul fishermen’s nets.

To obtain a permit, fishermen must provide a letter to the EPA stating why they wish to scuttle a vessel, a vessel description, disposal procedures, a proposed location, what alternatives they’ve researched, such as salvaging or using the vessel for scrap, and what effect the vessel may have on the environment.

The EPA works closely with the Coast Guard, Army Corps of Engineers, National Marine Fisheries Service and the New England Fisheries Management Council to ensure there won’t be a significant impact to the environment or fishing industry.

Mariners are encouraged to contact their local Coast Guard sector prevention department or harbor master to discuss legal methods of disposing of their vessel.

“As long as mariners come to us for help to legally dispose of their vessel, they won’t have anything to worry about,” Sennick said.

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