Derelict vessels can cause a real problem in the Keys

December 13 – The Planning and Environmental Resources Department in Monroe County is always busy with a variety of projects throughout the year, but recently, derelict vessels in the water have caused real issues.

Emily Schemper, senior director of Planning and Environmental Resources for Monroe County, joined Good Morning Keys on KeysTalk 96.9/102.5FM this morning to talk about the derelict vessels.

The Planning and Environmental Resources Department looks to foster sustainable, quality development in the county while conserving and promoting stewardship of the county’s fragile environment and unique characteristics of its diverse island community.

Because of Hurricane Ian, a number of derelict vessels have been found.

Schemper said, “The county for a long time has had a derelict vessel removal program. We work cooperatively with Florida Fish and Wildlife and the Monroe County Sheriff’s Office to get through the process to remove derelict vessels. It’s not as simple as it may sound. You may think, hey, just hire someone, go out there, tow that boat out of the water, but there’s a whole process you have to go through.”

Law enforcement personnel has to notify the boat owners and an investigation is also involved.

Schemper said, “There are some pretty strict laws about this. The owner can be subject to fines or even jail time if they don’t take corrective action for a derelict vessel.”

If the boat owner fails to be responsible in getting the boat out, the Planning and Environmental Resources Marine office is contacted and contractors to remove the boats are brought in.

Each year there are probably 60 to 80 derelict vessels taken out by the Planning and Environmental Resources Department. It’s probably about $350,000 in annual expenses to the county that is covered by boater improvement funds and Fish and Wildlife grants.

Schemper said, “Law enforcement tries to recoup the expenses from the vessel owner through a court-ordered process, but it’s not always possible, so it is a significant expense for the county. The money that we budget for this, again is supplemented by grant money, but if we start to run out of money, but if we start to run out of money, we do need to get the vessels out of the water, so we’re always pulling money from other programs trying to cover expenses if we do run out.”

One issue that adds an extra burden are the migrant vessels landing in south Florida.

Schemper said, “The Keys gets the majority of these. Miami-Dade also is seeing and feeling that increase, too. We’ve had several vessels from Haiti, but a lot of others are the small, make-shift vessels from Cuba. They are especially problematic because they start to fall apart and they become debris. So they are no longer a vessel, they become just pieces of debris floating in the water. They end up in the mangroves and it becomes a whole different cleanup process. Thankfully the US Coast Guard is real quick in responding if there are hazardous pollutants onboard.”

If you are a boat owner and your boat is in danger of becoming a derelict vessel, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission can help. Click here for more information:,Conservation%20Commission%20free%20of%20charge.

Schemper said, “That is really a great program and it’s very important before the vessel actually become derelict, you’ve got to get it out of the water because it’s such a bigger expense and bigger issue once it’s actually derelict. It’s not just a hey, tow it to shore to the nearest boat ramp. Our contractors are very careful about how they do this without damaging the environment more than what’s already happened.”

The derelict vessels really are an environmental hazard.

Schemper said, “It’s one of our higher priority programs in our marine resources office as well. You have times where a sunken vessel is purposefully left there to create an artificial resource, that’s a very unique situation. The rest of these, it’s debris in the water. It’s not supposed to be there. It’s damaging seagrass. It’s damaging corals. They break apart more and move around so it’s really important to get these out. Plus you never know what’s in there. Someone may know immediately, hey, there’s fuel tank. Let’s make sure there’s no fuel leaking out, but as the vessel starts to break up more, you may uncover more environmental hazards that you didn’t even know were there, so it’s very important to get those out.”

In 2022, there have been 49 removal authorizations of migrant vessels alone and the county has spent $62,000 in county funds.

Schemper said, “We then had another $22,000 in the grant money, but you don’t have time wait for a grant a lot of times. Those migrant vessels are about a third of the vessels that we’ve taken out in 2022 and we’ve spent over 50 percent of our budget already, just a few months into the fiscal year we’ve already spent 50 percent of our local money budget without the grants on the migrant vessels. I know Miami-Dade and Department of Emergency Management, FWC, they’re working together to try to figure out some answers to this problem because it’s really getting worse. It’s becoming a significant financial burden and it doesn’t seem to be slowing down.”