Rotting wood, rusting metal and no sign of ownership characterize 15 derelict vessels littering the waters of Deep Bay Harbour in Baynes Sound.
VIU Deep Bay Marine Field Station manager Brian Kingzett has been trying to address the “unsightly” vessels for years, with little luck and lots of strife.
“It’s a problem that’s getting worse and worse,” he said.
However, Transport Canada is reaching out to municipalities asking volunteers to enumerate and catalogue all derelict vessels in their area.
So the morning of Monday Jan. 27 Kingzett and RDN director Bill Veenhof took to the ocean to collect data.
The duo surveyed existing derelict vessels around the Deep Bay Harbour — taking photos and recording their size, GPS location and current condition.
“It’s a positive step,” said Kingzett, noting the results will be sent to Transport Canada by March. 5.
Kingzett hopes the information will provide fuel for the federal government to create some form of regulation to police derelict vessels — but he remains skeptical as progress has been painstakingly slow.
“It’s been incredibly frustrating,” said Kingzett, explaining that derelict vessels have the potential to cause major damage to the environment, the economy and human safety.
“The main concern is if these vessels sink,” he said. “What will happen is they will end up creating oil spills — and any oil spill, no matter its size, is significant.”
Kingzett said oil spills will negatively impact wildlife including the “tens of thousands of migratory birds that arrive every spring during the herring spawn in the area.”
Additionally, he said Deep Bay is an area with high shellfish resources which would be at stake.
“We could end up with significant closures,” he said. “If there is an oil spill, Environment Canada will enact emergency shellfish closures which will affect the industry — right here in Deep Bay there are at least 30 jobs dependent on shellfish aquaculture.”
Moreover, he said derelict vessels provide navigational hazards to other boaters, as the vessels often do not follow proper code in terms of providing anchoring light.
But the desolate nature of derelict vessels is exactly why it’s such a difficult issue to tackle.
The owners of the vessels are often nowhere to be found, making the problem seemingly impossible to address. In some cases, Kingzett said he tracked down vessel-owners based on registration numbers only to find out they haven’t had contact with these boats in decades, meaning proper paperwork was never filled out, leaving Kingzett at another dead-end road.
And taking the issue to the government has proved just as agonizing.
According to Coast Guard communications officer Dan Bate, derelict vessels aren’t exactly in any specific level of government’s jurisdiction.
“It falls between a bunch of different departments,” said Bate, adding the Coast Guard has no role in dealing with derelict vessels. “There is no one agency that has the responsibility to deal with it.”
Deputy director for the provincial Land Tenures Branch, Sean Herbert, who works under the Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations, admits the situation is “complicated.”
He explained “vessels” fall under federal jurisdiction, while “structures” fall under provincial jurisdiction; but distinguishing between the two is where things get problematic.
“By definition, a vessel is an object built for navigation through water by power or sail,” said Herbert. “But somebody might put a big wood box on a barge and throw a motor on the back.”
Derelict vessels are surrounded by this type of “grey area.”
And once you determine an object is defined as a vessel, when is it deemed derelict?
“One person’s problem vessel is another’s cruise line,” said Herbert, adding it often comes down to personal opinion.
“We have two different constitutional authorities (the federal and provincial government) and we’re doing what we can with local government,” he said. “There’s a lot of overlap and we work together with the resources we have.”
The ambiguity surrounding derelict vessel ownership and regulation is a problem playing itself out all over the province.
Kingzett believes derelict vessels have been showing up more frequently over the past two decades.
He explains the economic downturn coupled with a shift away from small working vessels has bolstered the problem.
“Most derelict vessels I’ve observed have been old wooden work boats, fishing boats or tugboats,” he said. “They’re the residual effect of modernization, of an industry shift into bigger working vessels.”
Kingzett said “left over boats” are piling up in the ocean.
“It’s a cultural problem manifesting itself in a small, but extremely significant environmental problem.”