Keywords: Water quality, Marine habitat, Marine debris, Oil spills, Toxic contaminants, Salish Sea Currents magazine

A state law going into effect this month will significantly increase funding for the cleanup of abandoned and derelict vessels in Puget Sound. The funding will add about $4.3 million annually to remove hazardous sunken wrecks and related pollutants.

The 161-foot-long, three-masted bark Windward was carrying 525,000 feet of lumber to San Francisco on December 30, 1875, when a heavy gale pushed it aground at Useless Bay on the southwest side of Whidbey Island. Owed $800 by the ship’s owner, Seattle businessman James Colman acquired the ruined ship and towed it to the Seattle waterfront. Local youth quickly took advantage of the abandoned vessel and used the Windward as a diving platform, while others stripped away anything valuable they could reach. Eventually, the ruined ship succumbed to the tide, the addition of piers, and pile driving for a railroad trestle along the waterfront.

Now mostly a distant memory, and lore of Seattle history, the Windward is one of the better historical examples of what has become a modern problem: abandoned and derelict vessels (ADV) in the Salish Sea. No one knows the true number of such vessels but in the past two decades state and local agencies have removed more than 1,200 of them from the state’s waterways. The vast majority were in Puget Sound and ranged in size from a 12-foot skiff at Port Hadlock to the 185-foot steel-hulled Kopcakoe, a one-time Russian fishing vessel.

Black and white image showing a wooden ship without masts in the water next to waterfront buildings.

Abandoned vessel Windward, Columbia Street near what is now Western Avenue, Seattle, ca. 1880. Photo: Seattle Public Library (spl_shp_22853)

The Kopcakoe had been bought inexpensively, like many ADVs, with the owner hoping to live on board. (One state official has said that people will sell boats on Craig’s List for ten dollars, just so they don’t have to deal with them.) After moving it around for several years, the owner beached the Kopcakoe in Totten Inlet in September 2005, which prompted the Coast Guard to require him to submit a removal plan. Two years later, residents reported the man attempting to illegally tow away the Kopcakoe, which listed ten degrees, had holes in the hull, and contained oil and other hazardous materials. After the Coast Guard paid $150,000 for HAZMAT cleanup, the Washington State Department of Natural Resources (DNR) eventually towed the ship to Commencement Bay, where it would be cut into scrap metal.

New legislation

Washington State began to formally address ADVs when the Legislature passed the Derelict Vessel Act in 2002. The first legislation of its kind in the state, it gave authorized public entities the ability and funding to remove and dispose of abandoned vessels up to 200 feet long on the state’s aquatic lands. Prior to passage of the Act, DNR had to go through a lengthy and expensive process to remove ADVs, which required the involvement of the U.S. Coast Guard and Army Corps of Engineers, neither of which had full authority to take action on such vessels. At present, the state’s ADV program has a list of 320 Vessels of Concern.

Unfortunately, it’s far too easy to simply walk away, says Troy Wood, who manages the ADV program for DNR. Wood, who spoke as part of a panel on the subject at the 2022 Salish Sea Ecosystem Conference in April, said boats end up abandoned because of maintenance costs, divorce, owner’s death, and disposal costs, to name a few of the many reasons. Nor does Washington have comprehensive insurance, sale, and liability requirements across the state, which could force more owners to take full responsibility for their vessels, not only during the time they own the boat but also after they sell it.

Funding for the derelict vessel program comes from a $3.00 fee on recreational vessels and $1.00/foot fee on commercial vessels. For the most recent biennium, which is the state’s funding cycle, the state appropriated $2 million. Most of the money goes toward reimbursement—the state pays up to 90% of removal and disposal costs—for the authorized public entities, including Fish and Wildlife, Parks and Recreation Commission (State Parks); metropolitan park districts; port districts; and any city, town, or county with aquatic ownership. In most years, according to Wood, the program exhausts its funding before the end of the two-year cycle.

A worker climbing onto a backhoe that is pulling a broken boat off the beach. Three workers are standing nearby.

Crews work to remove a derelict sailboat from Whidbey Island. Photo: Abbey Corzine/DNR (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

That issue should change soon. On March 24, 2022, Governor Inslee signed bipartisan legislation (HB 1700) that will significantly increase funding for the program. In addition to the fees paid by commercial and private vessel owners, money will now come from the watercraft excise tax, a 0.5 percent tax of the boat’s fair market value. Twenty five percent of these excise taxes, or about $4.3 million annually, will now go to the derelict vessel program, though this number is dependent upon vehicle registrations.

The new law takes effect on June 9. Wood says that all the funding won’t come in immediately and plans to use the additional funding to pay back local public entities their reimbursements, which have been accumulating. They also will use the money (an estimated $3 million) to remove the 125-foot R/V Hero, which sank in the Palix River in Willapa Bay, as well as hire more staff and further develop programs to reduce the number of ADVs.

The hazards

Derelict vessels have caught the attention of regulators for numerous reasons. At the most basic levels, they can be navigation hazards and attractive nuisances, drawing in people who might party or sleep on them, or use them as those youngsters did long ago on the Windward, as a diving platform. More critical to wildlife is what comes off the boat. A 2016 study of items associated with derelict vessels in English estuaries found extruded polystyrene, rope, tires, winches, tanks, pumps, stoves, ovens, cooking utensils, carpets, concrete blocks, a television, felt roofing, and a toilet. Not simply associated with the vessel, the items lay scattered across tidal mudflats and in saltmarsh vegetation, where birds and invertebrates could ingest them or be strangled and entrapped.

ADVs usually contain oil, gasoline, lubricants, and other toxic substances, all of which can damage marine wildlife and contaminate aquatic habitat. Further contamination of land, water, and wildlife comes from anti-fouling paint—typically PCB laden—and other pollutants, including asbestos, copper wiring, and flame retardants (which contain polybrominated diphenyl ethers, or PBDEs). Such compounds have been shown to induce immune suppression, impair reproduction, alter behavior, and decrease fertility.

“Prevention is by far the best way to protect fish and wildlife from toxic chemicals. Can’t we remove these derelict vessels and prevent new ones from sinking?”

Jim West, WDFW toxicologist

Many of these contaminants, or persistent organic pollutants (POP), are lipophilic, which means they dissolve preferentially in fat. “If you imagine where fat is, it’s in living organisms,” says Jim West, a toxicologist with WDFW. Any animal that consumes another rich in POPs will concentrate, or bioaccumulate, the POPs in their fats. Numerous studies show that many Puget Sound marine species, such as Pacific herring and northern anchovies, suffer from ingesting POPs, which subsequently leads to further bioaccumulation in salmon and orca. Researchers have found that southern resident killer whales carry excessively “high concentrations of PCBs …and likely have rapidly increasing levels of PBDEs,” according to NOAA.

“The potential for vessels to contain toxic chemicals is high and when the derelict boats remain in the water it compels us to ask: What are the chemicals and how much of them are there?” West says. “Because it’s expensive to answer these questions, it creates uncertainty and risk that is hard to deal with. Why do we do this to ourselves? Prevention is by far the best way to protect fish and wildlife from toxic chemicals. Can’t we remove these derelict vessels and prevent new ones from sinking?”

Prevention is also at the core of where Wood hopes to move the program. Recently, he was able to ramp up the Vessel Turn-In Program, in which vessel owners can turn in their boats free of charge before they deteriorate. Prior to 2020, the state limited the VTIP to spending $200,000 per biennium. “We got rid of that cap…which really increase our ability to prevent these vessels from becoming abandoned and derelict.” says Wood. With money from HB 1700, he also plans to create large scale turn-in events across the state.

Since 2014, the state has had legislation requiring an inspection, to be filed with Wood’s office, for any boat prior to it being sold, which should reduce the number of boats sold cheaply so that the owner can simply unload the problem vessel. In 2020, they lowered the vessel criteria for the VTIP from 65 feet to 35 feet. The shorter boats typically stay in the water, as opposed to being hauled out, and are higher risk group.

Wood’s program is also implementing two additional changes. Working with Washington Sea Grant, they piloted a search for better ways to recycle the steel, aluminum, wood, and fiberglass instead of landfilling them. “It didn’t make sense to take a boat out of the water and throw it on the land,” says Wood.

They are also starting to provide more funding to local law enforcement. They found that increased contact between state officials and boat owners and better education work together to reduce the risk of an owner abandoning their vessel. The new funding comes through three annual $50,000 grants; they will be issued on July 1.

Combined with the expected increase in funding from HB 1700, the state’s Derelict Vessel Removal Program is set to achieve a long-term goal of Wood’s and many other stakeholders. “We always wanted more money because our funding in the past was barely enough to keep our head above water,” he says. “We can finally move from being reactive to being proactive. This money is a total gamechanger.”

About the author: David B. Williams is an author, naturalist, and tour guide whose book Homewaters: A Human and Natural History of Puget Sound is a deep exploration of the stories of this beautiful waterway. He is also the author of the award-winning book Too High and Too Steep: Reshaping Seattle’s Topography, as well as Seattle Walks: Discovering History and Nature in the City. Williams is a Curatorial Associate at the Burke Museum and writes a free weekly newsletter on Substack, the Street Smart Naturalist.

Themes from the 2022 Salish Sea Ecosystem Conference

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