When a St. Petersburg, Florida, marine officer recently retired after 30 years on the job, Heather Judd, who works in the office of the city attorney, asked him what he would change in the region if he could change absolutely anything. The officer told her he wished that derelict boats would be removed from the area’s waterways. He also expressed a desire for boaters to slow down when they see emergency vessels near these derelict boats—in the same way that drivers of motor vehicles have to slow down on the nation’s roadways.

Now, those wishes and more could become law throughout the state of Florida. On January 3, state Senator Darryl Rouson, a Democrat from District 19, introduced Senate bill 1378. It would require boaters to slow down to minimum wake within 300 feet of an emergency vessel or construction barge, and would prohibit anchoring or mooring a vessel within 20 feet of a mangrove or public lands. “That came directly from our police department,” Judd says. “It’s a two-part bill, trying to close some gaps that occurred in the anchoring and mooring vacuum.”

The vacuum in dealing with derelict boats was created in St. Pete and some other Florida cities when a pilot program to address the issue hit its sunset phase and ended. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission conducted the program in cooperation with St. Pete as well as the cities of St. Augustine, Stuart, Sarasota and Marathon/Key West.

The proposed law would require Florida boaters to slow down to minimum wake within 300 feet of an emergency vessel.

The proposed law would require Florida boaters to slow down to minimum wake within 300 feet of an emergency vessel.

St. Pete was in the program as of 2012, Judd says. And during the years that the program lasted, there were nine or 10 boats that were derelict, what the city considered “problem boats—it has no ability to move; either homeless people were squatting on it or it had been dumped there to sink.” That number of boats wasn’t ideal, but it was manageable. Today, though, the numbers tell a far different story. After two years without the pilot program in place, the number of derelict (or what the city calls “stored”) boats is up to about 90, she says.

“It’s all around,” Judd says. “There are a few main places­. They’re in Coquina Key in Big Bayou. And then they’re up in Snug Harbor, which is adjacent to the Weedon Island State Nature Preserve. The last time I was in Snug Harbor, there were probably 15 boats that were fully sunk and another 20 or so that just looked like absolute hell.”

Today, the city can only regulate anchoring and mooring if a boat is a liveaboard vessel used solely as a residence, she says. That distinction leaves out a ton of boats; all a boat owner needs is an apartment and a driver’s license with that address, and the boat is untouchable for the city’s purposes. By contrast, under the pilot program, St. Pete created a mooring field and had the ability to say that boaters could not anchor outside of the mooring field or at a dock. That’s what got the number of derelict boats down. “Our officers aren’t dummies,” she says. “They know who’s just passing through or out there fishing. But the people who just left boats there, we said, ‘You have to go.’ And we got it down to about 10 boats.”

The new legislation would not only work to address the problem, but also would fund a study of derelict boats. It calls for $250,000 each year starting in fiscal 2020-21 and running through 2023-24 to fund a Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission study of the impacts of long-term stored vessels on local communities.

“Our theory is that a boat that’s not moving is not being maintained,” Judd says. “Otherwise, they sit there and rot, become hazardous and derelict. The worse they get, the more expensive it is for local government to do something about them, and the more environmental damage gets done. We want to attract the people who are coming to visit and want to live on their boats for a couple of months,. They’ll patronize our restaurants, go to the museums. At the same time, we want to [discourage] people who have a boat they can’t get rid of. Maybe they don’t have great paperwork on the boat, so they leave it in Snug Harbor and it becomes the city’s problem.”

In the past with similar legislation, she says, there has been pushback from various boating constituencies, including fishermen who want to be sure they can continue to access all the locations where they like to drop a hook. Judd says she’s ready to address those concerns and work with those constituencies; she gives the legislation a 50-50 shot at making it through the current legislative session.

“Lobbyists keep coming out of the woodwork, especially for fishing,” she says. “I keep saying, ‘It’s a 20-foot buffer, people.’ It’s hard and it’s frustrating. We’re not trying to prevent people from having a good time. We’re just trying to make it safer and more pleasant for everyone by getting the problem people out.” 

This article originally appeared in the March 2020 issue.