Part three in a four-part series
The Northern Retriever was in danger of sinking, and authorities had good reason to worry.
The 186-foot tug was moored on Grays Harbor in Western Washington, home to extensive fish and shellfish, and a main feeding stop for one of the largest bird migrations in the world. Each spring, millions of shorebirds arrive in the area to feed before their long flight to breeding grounds in the Arctic.
The tug sat in the midst of the area, decrepit, with holes in its hull and an array of hazardous chemicals onboard. Workers removed about 60,000 gallons of diesel, oil and contaminated water that could have leaked out if the boat sunk, along with 7,500 pounds of paint, flammable liquids, cleaners, batteries and other materials.
“Worst case scenario, the hull cracks open, the boat sinks and the fuel and oil comes out,” said Jim Sachet, a spill response unit supervisor for the Washingon State Department of Ecology. “That could be a catastrophic spill.”
The case starkly illustrates the environmental risks posed by the close to 200 derelict and abandoned boats scattered around Washington’s waterways. Decaying boats leach toxic chemicals such as PCBs, lead and petroleum products that can kill marine life and enter into the food chain, ultimately being consumed by humans.
As little as a quart of spilled oil, diesel or gasoline can contaminate acres of water and kill marine life. Juvenile fish and shellfish larvae are extremely sensitive to even small amounts of oil and fuel products. Additionally, many boats keep cleaning materials, varnish, paint and other items made with chemicals that are lethal to marine life.
Chris Wilke, pollution prevention director for the Puget Soundkeeper Alliance, said oil is particularly problematic since it pools on the water’s surface, where many animals feed.
“Typically, some of the most productive areas in the water are in the top few millimeters on the surface,” he said. “Oil can poison or coat the bodies or birds and animals, who can ingest it.”
Also of concern are the large numbers of aging fiberglass boats in Washington waters that were built in the 1960s and are nearing the end of their operational lives. Unlike wooden boats, fiberglass boats don’t eventually rot away.
“You find these old fiberglass boats that are totally falling apart but they’re still large, solid structures,” said Doug Helton of NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration. “You can’t dispose of them at sea. There really isn’t an economic way to dispose of them.”
Sunken boats can also carry deadly fishing lines, traps and nets that “ghost fish” long after the ship has hit bottom, ensnaring fish, turtles and sea birds, which become trapped and die. Derelict fishing gear makes up 10 percent—about 640 tons—of the world’s marine debris, according to a study released in May by the United Nations Food and Agriculture organization and the United Nations Environment Program.
The problem has increased with the rising use of nets made from durable synthetic fibers that can continue to trap marine life for years. Bottom set gill nets are a primary culprit—anchored to the sea floor with floats attached, they form an underwater wall of netting that can stretch for thousands of feet.
Numerous organizations and agencies are stepping up efforts to crack down on owners of derelict boats and increase education around the hazards they pose. Under Washington state law, the penalty for allowing oil or other petroleum products to spill into the marine environment has increased fivefold. Negligent boat owners can face fines of up to $10,000 a day and are responsible for the costs of cleaning up spills and any associated environmental restoration work.
The Washington Department of Natural Resources is ensuring that owners of decrepit and abandoned boats are more routinely slapped with misdemeanor charges, and is working with cities and counties to increase vessel registration enforcement, which improves the likelihood of tracking down abandoned boat owners.
Wilke said boaters can help by taking steps to avoid spills, such as draining used oil with a pump to prevent drips or spills into the bilge, regularly checking bilge pumps and cleaning oily residue from bilges with absorbent pads. Boaters should never use soap or detergent to clean oily areas, he said—the soil emulsifies the oil and allows it to mix into the water, where fish might breathe it. Another reason: adding soap to an oil spill is illegal.
Oil and fuel spills should be reported by calling 800-OILS-911 or the U.S. coast guard at 800-424-8802. Derelict fishing gear can be reported at 877-933-9847.
The best defense against environmental hazards caused by derelict boats, Wilke pointed out, is for cash-strapped owners to get rid of their boats before they become rundown.
“Boats are a labor of love,” Wilke said. “It is a responsibility owning a boat.”
Sachet said owners of derelict boats often fall victim to oversized and unrealistic intentions.
“Each of these (boats) has its own story, and sometimes it’s a sad story,” he said. “Usually somebody has dreams of refurbishing these things, but because of the expense and personal history involved with the owners, it never happens. They get inherited by an agency or one type or another.
“Hopefully we catch them before they sink and create a huge environmental mess, but sometimes we don’t.”
Part 1 – Monday: Dozens of abandoned boats littering Washington’s waterways create costly headaches for the authorities and marinas left to deal with them.
Part 2 – Tuesday: State agencies are working to keep up with growing numbers of abandoned boats.
Part 4 – Thursday: Read about the state’s biggest and most expensive derelict boat disaster.