By Dan McDonald
For Hometown News
BREVARD -- With its more than 120-miles of navigable waterways on the Indian River, Banana River and the Mosquito Lagoon, Brevard County has more boating opportunities than many states, and the statistics bear it out:
Nearly 40,000 boats are registered annually.
The Indian River Lagoon generates $630 million a year in income to local residents.
Untold thousands of transient boats pass through Space Coast waters annually.
And all of that boating activity also leads to another fact: The county is pestered by a problem that is just as persistent as barnacles - derelict vessels.
"Since 2006, when we began the recovery program, we've removed approximately 150 derelict boats," said Matt Culver, boating and waterways program coordinator for the Brevard County Natural Resources Management Office.
Currently, the department is about halfway through its latest phase of the removal plan, which includes 20 boats, and should be wrapped up with the final boats in the current cycle by the end of the year, Mr. Culver said.
"Yet, even when we're finished with this funding cycle, there are still approximately 16 derelict boats out on our waterways that I'm aware of, and I'm sure that before we can get rid of them, they'll be others," he said. "It's a problem that just keeps on growing."
Mr. Culver explained that numerous factors lead to the problematic vessels. First, among them is the sheer number of boats and boating activity.
"We have nearly 40,000 legally registered boats, plus numerous unregistered boats and literally untold thousands and thousands of boats that transit our waters each year," he said.
And, while most of these boats are safe and secure, there are many that are not.
"All it takes is one storm and boats that are not secured properly are blown up on shore," Mr. Culver said. "If it's going to cost the owner more to get the boat removed and fixed than it's worth, they walk away."
The ability to walk away from a vessel that should be legally registered has become the hub of the problem, which consequently, impacts the taxpayers of Brevard.
This phase of boat removal costs $42,500, the latest chunk of the nearly $250,000 spent on the rotting hulks that endanger sea life and other boats, Mr. Culver said.
Half of that money comes from yearly grants from the Florida Inland Navigation District, and the other half comes from Brevard County's share of the boating registration funds.
"Clearly, if the boats were registered properly, we would be able to find the owners and they would be liable for the cleanup and removal fees," Mr. Culver said. "But, what happens is someone will sell a boat to a friend. Then, before that person registers the boat, he sells it to someone else, and before too long, the paper trail is gone.
Then, there are also the transient boats that just end up in Brevard County's waterways.
"All it takes is a storm to crop up, and we've got problems," Mr. Culver said. "Most of the boats we're removing right now were driven aground during a no-name storm that hit in October of 2011.
Of all the boats his staff has removed, it has only been able to locate the owners of five or six of them, Mr. Culver said.
"In a couple of cases, the owners have payment plans and are slowly paying off the removal fee," he said. "But, clearly that's the minority of cases."
To help limit that problem, Mr. Culver said his office is working closely with Florida Fish and Wildlife officers and Brevard County Sheriff's deputies to more closely inspect vessels that are moored on county waterways.
"Those boats have to be in working order and be registered," he said. "We're getting a lot more cooperation from those agencies to inspect the live-aboard boats to make certain they are sea-worthy and all the paperwork is up to speed.
But, even then, it's not a 100-percent solution to the problem, Mr. Culver said.
"If a boat runs up on ground, and it's in bad shape and not worth fixing, we can only tell who owns it if the registration numbers are still on the boat," he said. "If those numbers disappear, it's hard to say who owns what. It's a problem we have and probably will have for some time to come."
Mr. Culver estimates that since the program began six years ago, salvage workers have removed more than 400 tons of derelict boat debris, which is brought to shore by barge and ultimately taken to the Brevard County Land Fill in Cocoa. Also removed from the waterways were more than 30 marine batteries and 300 gallons of fuel and oil.
While each phase of the removal program is put out to bid, so far, one salvage company has won all of the contracts. Kevin Miller, owner of Brevard-based Absolute Marine Towing & Salvage, has won the bid for each contract. After he gets permits from the Florida Department of Environmental Protection and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, his team goes to work.
"We have a good crew, and we enjoy being out on the water," Mr. Miller said. "We have an excavator with a claw bucket that we place on a barge. We get near the target boat, set out retention floats and go to work."
Mr. Miller said the worst boats to remove are the older wooden ones, as they tend to break up and the crew has more pieces to deal with.
But, he said, each vessel is different.
"If we find batteries on board, we take them out. If there is any gas or fuel, we pump that into holding tanks and send it to recyclers. We do try to salvage anything we can," Mr. Miller said. "We have gotten a couple of props and a mast or two. But generally, these boats are pretty well-picked over. They're mostly junk, which is why we're pulling them out of the water in the first place."
While this phase should be wrapped up by the year's end - weather permitting - Mr. Culver said he is already preparing for the next round.
"As soon as these last few boats are removed, I'll start writing the grants to try and get the money we need from the Navigation District and the Brevard registration fees for the next phase," Mr. Culver said. "There are 16 of these boats that I'm aware of right now."
But by the time the money is appropriated, the contracts are approved and the permits secured, that number could easily change, he said.
"Hopefully, someday all our waterways will be cleaned up, and the only boats out there will be having fun," Mr. Culver said.