CHARLESTON, S.C. – Abandoned vessels may have become an unofficial indicator of the tough economy.
While no exact national figures exist, authorities in most states with a coast or large body of water have reported increasing numbers of boat owners abandoning ship in recent years.
"Certainly the economic downturn did seem to increase the number of boats that were being reported as derelict," said Dan Burger, director of communication for the Ocean and Coastal Resource Management division of the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control (DHEC).
There are a host of reasons why people abandon boats, including those who can't keep up on the loan payments, maintenance, or the high cost of fuel.
DHEC is overseeing the removal of scores of abandoned boats from coastal waterways.
During a recent tour of Charleston's Ashley River, DHEC Coastal Projects Manager Curtis Joyner pointed to a saltwater marsh where his agency had supervised the removal of multiple boats.
"There were seven vessels ... consisting of a metal barge, a shrimp boat and several sail boats," Joyner said. "I think it's one of our really good success stories in restoring the environment."
In addition to being eyesores, abandoned vessels often leak fuel and other hazardous chemicals and usually lack any lights to warn approaching boats at night.
Joyner pointed to an abandoned vessel anchored close to a major channel used by commercial and recreational boaters. Over time, anchor lines wear out and boats break free, eventually sinking or colliding with other watercraft.
"When the vessel breaks loose, then we have to deal with it," said David Rogers, harbormaster at the Charleston City Marina. "Normally they're, of course, abandoned and do not have insurance."
South Carolina is among dozens of state and local governments that have recently increased penalties against owners of abandoned vessels. But with boats frequently changing hands and owners often scratching off serial numbers, tracking them can be difficult.
That sticks taxpayers with removal fees ranging from $3,000 to $20,000, depending on the size of the boat.
The same market conditions affecting boat owners are also affecting the government agencies in charge of removing abandoned vessels. So, increasingly, they're relying on help from the private sector.
"A local car dealer chipped in to help us get a big shrimp boat out recently," said Robbie Freeman, managing partner of the Charleston City Marina. "Just people who care about clean water."
Freeman said he advises financially troubled boaters to seek help from local businesses and government authorities before their vessels take on water.
According to Freeman, once a boat sinks, disposal fees can quadruple, making a public hazard all the more costly.