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‘Boats everywhere’: derelict vessels continue to pollute B.C. waters

Derelict vessel that caught fire after washing ashore on Denman Island just tip of a large iceberg

This is the first in an investigative series on the issue of derelict and sunken boats on the West Coast: the effects, the damage to the ecosystem, and what is - or what is not - being done to resolve the ongoing problem.


On the morning of July 16, a lone crewless vessel made its appearance in Baynes Sound and slowly drifted down Denman Island’s shoreline.

At around noon, when the tide receded, residents of the island flocked to the end of Hinton Road in consternation.

“Neighbours of mine sent me a picture of a boat that landed on our beach,” said Baynes Sound/ Lambert Channel EcoForum co-ordinator Gail Dugas. “It got swept up on shore and it was on its keel. It was just a couple of hundred feet away from a clam lease.”

A few hours later, when the high tide rolled back in, what was a peculiar sighting at first became a hazardous threat.

“My husband who works at the fire department got a call and the boat had tipped over and was on fire,” added Dugas.

Denman Island Fire Chief Rob Manering and his team left the fire hall after they received a phone call at 4:34 p.m.

It is only once Manering and his crew successfully suppressed the flames that they witnessed the true extent of the incident.

“It was just a mess and nobody could tell anything from anything,” said Manering. “There were all kinds of junk out on the beach; burnt wood, miscellaneous bits and pieces from the boat itself, burnt life jackets, and melted cans.”

Though the fire was a hazard in itself, the fire chief was predominantly concerned by the smoke emanating from the wreck.

“Burning, fibreglass (releases all sorts of) chemicals,” added Manering. “In the smoke, you end up with fibreglass particles and when those get breathed in they get stuck in your lungs. We wound up evacuating the residents along that stretch of the beach.”

Although the cause of the fire has not officially been determined, Manering theorizes that it may have to do with the exposure of worn-out wiring and batteries to salt water.

Venturing outside of their jurisdiction—determined by the high-tide line—the Denman Island Fire Department was responsible for putting out the fire that would have otherwise continued burning into the night.

Shortly after the incident, Association for Denman Island Marine Steward board member Liz Johnston contacted the Coast Guard and filed a report. However, she is still awaiting feedback from the agency on the vessel’s future.

More than meets the eyes

The national inventory currently states that 70 per cent of the 1,491 abandoned vessels are found in B.C. waters. Twenty-one of them can be found in the region extending from Comox to Deep Bay.

However, according to Hornby Island Diving co-owner Amanda Zielinski, whose focus is on marine research and conservation, these numbers are off by an order of magnitude.

John Roe, co-founder of the Dead Boat Disposal Society, corroborated Zielinski’s statement.

“There are boats everywhere,” said Roe. “It’s an old database that the (government) is working off and they are well aware that their numbers are off,” said Roe. “We took out 41 boats (from the Comox Valley region) two years ago and we want to take care of another 38 boats.”

Ranging from small dinghies to 80-foot fishing vessels, Roe says that the real number of abandoned vessels littering our ocean bed and waterways is currently unknown.

Many of these watercraft, Roe explained, have been orphaned because their owners did not want to deal with all the responsibilities that a boat entails.

“When these boats got older, they get traded off because their maintenance is costly,” said Roe. “Boats are expensive to fix; it’s a hole in the water you throw money into. That’s why many of them end up in the woods or are abandoned at sea.”

The cost of inaction

According to Zielinski and Roe, the rule of thumb says that sunken boats are at least three times more expensive to deal with than those that are still afloat.

“First, you got to do an environmental assessment so there’s a cost to hiring a biologist,” said Roe.

Then the cost of professional and qualified labour also quickly adds up to the bill.

“When put commercial divers down there it just takes so much more time with all the laws and regulations,” added Roe.

Once the divers are done, they give way to the big guns.

“It also requires big heavy infrastructures to lift and refloat vessels, which is immensely complicated,” noted Zielinski. “If it’s down for any length of time, it gets fouled with the marine growth and it starts to spread and break apart. It’s much more difficult to deal with a boat that’s been down for years than a freshly sunken one. The very best thing is to prevent that from happening in the first place.”

Yet, more often than not, it takes years for sunken derelict vessels to be removed from the environment.

“The boats generally sit there for three to four years before we’ll actually get permission (from the government) to remove them,” said Roe.

Roe estimated that the price tag for these removals can range from $30,000 up to $240,000, which often ends up being partially or totally covered by taxpayer money.

In the meantime, while paperwork is being filed, a legion of slumbering vessels are slowly discharging a cocktail of oils, lubricants, lead, mercury, zinc, asbestos, battery acid, microplastics, fibreglass particles, and styrofoam.

A common denominator

Among those dealing with derelict vessels, one thing stands out: frustration.

“There really doesn’t seem to be any strong policy on derelict boats,” said Dugas. “There are a lot of gaps in the jurisdiction and there’s just no one to call. Jurisdictional responsibility is a huge question mark as we struggle to understand the health of the marine ecosystem.”

Determining who to call between the Coast Guard, DFO, Environment Canada, Transport Canada and other governmental agencies often ends up in a wild goose chase.

“It’s a real uphill battle,” said Zielinski. “Their default position is to avoid the situation and not to attempt to solve it. Any agency that you contact within those realms of responsibility will immediately start explaining why it’s not their problem and it’s someone else’s problem.

“Basically, any time you file a report, it’s gonna use up your whole day. It’s very, very frustrating.”

As of today, July 27, the burnt derelict vessel still sits on the Denman Island shoreline.

How damaging is it to the marine ecosystem? That depends on who is asked the question. The next instalment of the series will look into the effects of sunken boats to ocean health.

RELATED: Only 2 fines levied for abandoned boats since law passed 4 years ago

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