By Naomi Klouda
A 120-foot landing craft called the Sound Developer sank in Cordova’s harbor three winters ago, broken in parts and leaking whatever hazardous fuels were aboard.
The craft was abandoned by its owner, who was nowhere to be found. A consortium of agencies tried to deal with the problem. Even after spending $5 million, the landing craft and its pieces remain on the harbor floor. Its wheelhouse is partially above water, creating a navigation hazard, with a promised removal coming soon.
This was one of the cautionary tales told by municipal attorney Holly Wells at a gathering of the Alaska Association of Harbormasters and Port Administrators on Thursday at Land’s End Resort in Homer. The session on what to do about derelict boats — or derelict boat owners — engaged the group well into overtime as attendees grappled toward solutions to a shared problem.
Look for the problem of derelict vessels abandoned in harbors to get worse in the next decade. An aging fleet of fishing and transportation vessels used for a variety of purposes are approaching the ends of their useful lives, Wells told the gathering.
“In 10 years, you will be overwhelmed. It is time communities get together to deal with them collectively,” Wells said.
Solutions she suggested ranged from new laws that would protect harbors to good networking by harbor officials.
The economic heyday of commercial fisheries brought many vessels north that never left again. Old state ferries, tugs used for hauling freight, World War II transports transformed for floating processors — many are still out there. Downsized fisheries left many obsolete, and Alaska’s harbors became their last stop.
Homer Harbormaster Bryan Hawkins calls it “the hot potato problem,” when one of those ships is evicted from one harbor, only to go rest in another harbor.
“The hot-potato plan sucks when you get stuck with a derelict. We managed to get four of our derelicts broken down, two changed owners and one is still in the harbor,” Hawkins said. “The problem is that most left to other places in the state. I’m not proud of that. I don’t like it; it’s not a solution.”
With the help of a phone tree, harbor officials can alert one another when a derelict is limping in their direction. Wells recommended the harbor officials immediately establish such a communication tree.
There are legal pitfalls that can be avoided, Wells advised them. Armed with strong city tariffs and codes spelling out a list of safety requirements, cities can prevent problem boats from becoming an economic and environmental nightmare like the Sound Developer. One solution comes from identifying sooner, rather than later, when a boat is in trouble.
Hawkins, who said Homer is “an overachiever in the derelict vessel problem,” set out to find solutions when he saw what he was up against due to the often mammoth size of the vessels. Hawkins and Deputy Harbor Master Matt Clarke wrote letters and spoke with the U.S. Coast Guard, Environmental Protection Agency and the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation. If old tugs like the Spanky Paine or the Honcho, now being salvaged for scrap metal, were to sink in the harbor, whatever waste oil and other pollution remains aboard could easily leak.
“I was embarrassed to ask, is there a federal or state plan to help with these boats? I was hardheaded and kept asking the question. But, no, in the end I found we’re on our own,” Hawkins said. “We will continue to push for, number one, them to recognize the problem, and number two, find a workable solution before the costs to the public reach the millions like they have in the case of the Sound Developer.”
Hawkins began taking legal steps, working with Wells to rid the harbor of boats that represent “clear and present danger,” he said. Homer’s city attorneys are with the firm of Birch, Horton, Bittner and Cherot, municipal attorneys who increasingly have branched into admiralty law in order to help cities find remedies for problem boats in their harbors. Wells, in searching case histories, discovered an ancient role of federal protection stretching back to the 18th and 19th centuries. Ship ownership carries with it weighty U.S. Constitutional protections. While collecting on debt, placing liens or evicting owners, harbors must avoid actions that could be deemed unconstitutional. Harbors also can’t reasonably exclude a ship or boat seeking refuge, outlined as the owner’s legal rights under admiralty law.
But cities can create legal means to protect their waters.
“The law requires a city to act ‘rationally’ in regard to vessels. That means having it spelled out in tariffs and code ahead of time. Here is an itemized list of things you cannot do; here are the requirements you must meet in order to remain in the harbor,” Wells said.
Working with Hawkins, Homer developed a new law that requires each boat in the harbor to be moved on its own power two times per year, at least 60 days apart. This helps identify boats too broken down, or those abandoned by their owners. So far, this has been an invaluable tool, Hawkins said.
A harbor official from Ketchikan asked Wells what can be done if an ailing ship is escorted into the harbor by the U.S. Coast Guard.
“You have control. If the ship is falling apart at the seams, you can talk about the clear and present danger it presents. The Coast Guard can be your ally,” Wells said. “This threat can help you immediately get that vessel out of the harbor.”
Unpaid moorage fees from abandoned boats mount into the thousands of dollars, representing a double loss to cities since they can’t rent out the space to a working boat.
Hawkins found that by working with owners, offering to forgive half the moorage fees on the condition of getting the boat out of the harbor, he can achieve the desired results. Wells called this flexibility “an attitude of compassion,” because boats are owned by people who sometimes bite off more than they can chew.
“These are fishing vessels that changed hands for pennies, and the new owners don’t fully understand the investment associated with boats like these,” she said.
“People overestimate the amount of spare time and money they have,” Hawkins said. “In reality, they don’t have the time and they don’t have the money.”
Overwhelmed with both problems, such owners need to be worked with in whatever way it takes. In the cases of the Spanky Paine and the Honcho, the city of Homer handed over both tugs to Peninsula Scrap and Salvage, receiving no monetary compensation.
“But the way we look it, we get back 90 foot of moorage space, and we’ve mitigated an irritation and prevented a future disaster,” Hawkins said.
In working toward a solution, port and harbor officials could lobby for changes in state statutes to protect harbors with new laws. It will entail gaining legislators who are willing to draft and push bills toward passage. It begins with educating the public and politicians on the depth of the problem.
Of the 14 ailing vessels that formerly inhabited the Homer harbor, all of the large derelicts are gone. Now there are a few smaller 40-foot class vessels on the radar.