Rash of derelict boats in South Sound strains response resources

Gig Harbor police Chief Kelly Busey drains an abandoned boat of hazardous materials in 2009 in Gig Harbor. After police pumped the boat out several times, the owner eventually removed it from the harbor, Busey said.
Gig Harbor police Chief Kelly Busey drains an abandoned boat of hazardous materials in 2009 in Gig Harbor. After police pumped the boat out several times, the owner eventually removed it from the harbor, Busey said. Courtesy

When a boat is left neglected in Washington waters — tied up or anchored down for weeks — the way things are supposed to work is straightforward.

The official or private citizen who spots the boat reports it to the state Department of Natural Resources to investigate and look for the owner. Eventually, the boat is either claimed or removed. Under state law, this policy governs boats in Puget Sound and inland lakes and rivers. It has led to the removal of about 600 boats in its 15 years.

But over the past few months, a watchdog agency for Commencement Bay says the program hasn’t been effective at managing the derelict boats in Sound waters near Tacoma. Officials from the nonprofit Citizens for a Healthy Bay said they have watched and reported five boats since the beginning of October. Three of them either sank or ran aground before the state agency intervened.

“The rate of this happening has skyrocketed,” said Melissa Malott, executive director of Citizens for a Healthy Bay.

Brian Bare, manager of the agency’s bay patrol, said he reported two boats that sank, both sailboats, to the state weeks before they went down. A tugboat sank Oct. 20 near Raft Island and was reported by the agency. It was hauled up about a month later, after a sheen of oil developed.

“They’re put on a list and then just sit there,” Bare said.

Department of Natural Resources officials said the agency responds to reports of derelict vessels as its resources allow, with those posing a direct danger to people or the environment taking priority.

“There are more abandoned — or potentially abandoned, or derelict — vessels than there is the ability to respond to them,” said Kyle Murphy, who supervises the derelict vessel removal program for the agency. “It’s a big problem.”


DNR records show that the agency has logged 17 vessels of concern in Pierce County waters this year. Of those, 10 have been removed, six by public agencies. In Thurston County, the state listed 13 vessels of concern this year and recorded six removals.

A boat isn’t automatically pulled out of the water just because it makes the state’s list. First, the agency tries to track down the vessel’s owner and to figure out if a boat has been abandoned or simply hasn’t been moved in a while. Not all boats that people actively use are in gleaming shape, which complicates the issue.

Bare said he encountered a boat in early December near Olympia that had no heat and a gaping hole in a starboard side. It also had someone living on it.

“This is not a good situation for him or the boat,” Bare wrote in an email, “and possibly the environment.”

State officials have attempted to address the issue of decrepit boats several ways, because of the dangers such boats can pose. Sunken boats can be a navigation hazard and can leak fuel or bilge chemicals into surrounding waters. Unmoored boats are a crash hazard.

There is a boat turn-in program, in which an unwanted boat under 45 feet long can be given to the state outright, negating disposal costs. Owners of larger and older vessels have to bring them in for state inspection with proof of insurance before the vessels change hands.

The state allocated $2.5 million for derelict boat removal in the the 2015-16 budget, down from $4.5 million in the prior two-year cycle, much of it from boat registration fees. The program’s fate in the 2017-19 budget is unclear. How far the money goes depends on the size of a boat, from $200 for removing a dinghy to $125,000 for a standard 45-foot sailboat, Murphy said.

The agency has paid more than $500,000 to haul up individual boats several times, including the $920,000 cost in 2014 of removing the Murph, a military tugboat that sank in 2007, from Quartermaster Harbor on Vashon Island. Even more expensive was the $1.2 million removal cost for the sunken Helena Star from the Hylebos waterway in Tacoma in 2014.

“All it takes is one big old military or commercial-grade vessel to really take a big bite out of our budget,” Murphy said.

In its most current statewide inventory, the DNR listed 11 vessels it intended to take into custody by the end of January.

One was in Tacoma, along the Dick Gilmur shoreline of Commencement Bay, and another was on Black Lake in Thurston County.

Less than $70,000 remains in the program’s coffers for the fiscal year that ends in June 2017.


Occasionally, authorities learn of a boat’s troubles only after it goes underwater. Gig Harbor authorities responded Dec. 13 to a 20-foot cabin cruiser that had sunk in the city’s bay. This involved containing the leaking fuel on the surface and pumping out what remained in the tanks before a hired contractor could pull up the boat, Gig Harbor Fire Department battalion chief Todd Meyer said.

Awareness campaigns aimed at preventing the dangers and expense derelict boats can create have led to more problem boats being reported, Murphy said.

The Gig Harbor boat that sank didn’t appear on the state’s list of troubled vessels. The city’s police chief said a long campaign to weed out derelict boats from city waters still occasionally turns up a boat in bad shape moored on public property in harm’s way.

“People say, ‘It’s public land. I can do whatever I want,’ and that’s not always the case,” Gig Harbor police Chief Kelly Busey said.

Derrick Nunnally: 253-597-8693