Bay Crossings Article

San Francisco Bay Estuary: Sensitive Habitat or Marine Junkyard?

Sejal Choksi
From the September 2008 edition of Bay Crossings

Cruise through Richardson Bay, the Oakland Estuary or the sloughs near Redwood City, and you will see dozens of abandoned boats of all makes and sizes. The number of derelict boats is so extreme in the eastern reaches of the Bay that a recent Contra Costa County report indicated that the removal of 300 vessels in the past 20 years has hardly put a dent in the "aquatic junkyards." As more and more vessels litter our waterways, I've become increasingly concerned about the gaps in policies for dealing with abandoned boats. These ships are serious environmental hazards -- not to mention an unattractive addition to our beautiful Bay waters.

Derelict vessels can contain a host of toxic pollutants, and as the boats deteriorate and become submerged, these substances inevitably enter the Bay. Oil, gasoline and sewage can spread through the water and onto beaches and shorelines, endangering wildlife and humans who come into contact with these substances. Boats may also have batteries, cleaning fluids or other toxic substances on them. A recent analysis of the paint used on some vessels in the Bay revealed a highly toxic suite of metals including chromium, copper, lead, mercury and zinc. When these toxins leach into the water, they contaminate Bay sediment, where sediment-dwelling organisms can ingest them. The toxins thus contaminate the food supply of all Bay wildlife, endangering fish, birds and marine mammals.

Current federal and state rules deal only with an abandoned marine vessel if the object poses "a substantial hazard on navigable waterways." This means that derelict vessels can leak toxic substances into the Bay with little environmental and public safety oversight. Lack of funding is often identified as the biggest obstacle to effectively removing abandoned vessels, since hauling out submerged and partially submerged objects is costly and difficult. Removing an abandoned vessel from the water costs about $200 per foot, which means that removing one small houseboat can cost upwards of $5,000. This puts the cost of ridding the Bay of abandoned vessels and debris in the millions of dollars -- an additive cost that our local government budgets may not be able to bear.

In light of the significant costs associated with cleaning up derelict boats, public agencies must be empowered to tackle the problem before the boats are abandoned. A state law currently working its way through the California legislature would create a vessel turn-in program, allowing boaters to surrender vessels free of charge and allowing the agency to take possession of the vessel before it's left to deteriorate in the Bay for months or years.

Another contributing factor to the increasing number of derelict boats in our waters is the lack of consequences faced by those who abandon these vessels. Contra Costa County recently instituted an ordinance to fine boat owners and confiscate vessels anchoring in county waters without a permanent dock, proper sanitation device or other evidence that the vessel is not abandoned. State and local policy-makers should also consider creating a telephone tip line to report derelict vessels, which could deter individuals and entities from abandoning boats. The creation and delegation of formal authority to a single agency that would be responsible for claiming, removing and properly disposing of abandoned boats might also be useful.

Finally, as promoted by the Contra Costa County report, communities should consider implementing an "Adopt-a-Waterway" program similar to the state's "Adopt-a-Highway" effort, in which private individuals and businesses donate money to improve the state of local waterways, including the removal of abandoned vessels and other marine debris. This program would provide an opportunity for local community members to invest in protecting the Bay.

Abandoned boats are impacting the water quality of the Bay, and it's important that we all take steps to prevent this growing source of pollution. You can support Baykeeper's efforts to reduce pollution in the Bay by becoming a member at