Spike in abandoned boats off Navy base prompts calls for crackdown
By DAVID GARRICK | The San Diego Union-Tribune | Published: October 11, 2017
SAN DIEGO (Tribune News Service) — A sharp and costly increase in the number of boats abandoned in the ocean off Coronado’s Naval Air Station North Island is prompting requests for a crackdown by San Diego lifeguards.
Drug smugglers, people trying to avoid homelessness and boat owners who can’t afford maintenance costs have been more frequently abandoning vessels in the sometimes choppy waters, lifeguard and Navy officials say.
The boats often break apart during rainstorms or high surf, sometimes emitting fuel and hazardous materials into the ocean and onto the beach. Demolition and clean-up costs can also be significant when boats wash ashore.
Sixty-one abandoned vessels have sunk, been beached or broken apart in the last seven years, with 21 of those incidents happening since January, officials said.
City lifeguards are proposing a new law that would limit anchoring in the area to two hours maximum, which would help prevent the problem but allow enough time for boaters who anchor there to fish, hunt for lobsters or snorkel.
“We really believe this will help go a long way in preventing these types of problems with our environment and these types of clean-ups,” Lifeguard Chief Rick Wurts said. “It’s important to note we are not asking for it to be a ‘no anchorage’ area at all because a lot of people like to go down there.”
The City Council’s Public Safety and Livable Neighborhoods Committee unanimously approved the new law last week and sent it to the full council for final approval later this fall.
The Navy, which pays for the clean-ups because the boats wash onto its shore, says each vessel costs between $2,500 and $50,000 to remove.
In addition, one vessel that broke apart emitted between 200 and 400 gallons of fuel into the water.
“The vessels that drift ashore create an imminent hazard to the health of recreational beach patrons, threaten protected environmental resources and impact military training and mission readiness,” said Alexandra Abbey, associate counsel for Navy Region Southwest.
The Navy must try to contact owners and give them 30 days to remove an apparently abandoned boat. But the boats often don’t have identifiable hull numbers or the owners connected to the hull number are unknown.
Another reason some boats aren’t immediately destroyed and removed is that such work is prohibited part of the year by environmental protections in place for a bird called the California least tern.
Such boats typically continue to break up into smaller pieces, complicating clean-up efforts.
The Zuniga Jetty, a mile-long string of large rocks that extends from the tip of North Island into the ocean, prevents chunks of the broken boats from floating into San Diego Bay.
The jetty, which separates the ocean from the bay, was built in the late 1800’s by the federal government to prevent sand from clogging up the bay. A railroad had to be built through Coronado to haul the boulders to the site.
The new law is required for the city of San Diego, which has jurisdiction over the waters off the military base, to issue tickets to vessels there because there are no laws prohibiting anchorage in the Pacific Ocean, Wurts said.
The law would eliminate one of the last free places to anchor or moor a boat in San Diego.
The Port of San Diego eliminated most free mooring sites in the bay in the 1980s because of abandoned vessels and other problems.
There are now 462 mooring buoys in the bay at four sites: Laurel Street, Shelter Island, America’s Cup Harbor and Coronado Tidelands Park.
Mooring, which typically costs about $150 per month, is much cheaper than using marinas, which have monthly fees ranging from $300 to $1,300 depending on location and amenities.
Wurts said some of the abandoned boats belonged to people on the verge of homelessness who tried living on a boat but gave up because of costs.
Others are abandoned by drug smugglers, he said. But those generally get removed quickly by U.S. Customs and Border Enforcement as evidence, Wurts said.
But the majority of the boats are left there intentionally by owners fed up with expenses and unwilling to pay for the proper environmental removal, he said.
“Honestly, what happens most of the time is people buy boats and they don’t realize how expensive it is to maintain a boat,” Wurts said.
Sometimes owners strip such boats of all valuables and equipment before abandoning them, confident that the next storm will wash the boat ashore and force the Navy to pay for demolition.
Councilwoman Barbara Bry said underestimating costs is a common theme for boat owners.
“I’ve heard there’s a saying among boat owners that the best day in their life is the day they sell their boat,” Bry said.
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