They are rusting relics of a bygone era — vessels abandoned by their owners that now haunt municipalities and port authorities desperate to get rid of them.

The often dilapidated freighters, fishing boats and tugs are eyesores for communities and potential pollution threats that can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to clean up if they sink or leak fuel.

Now a CBC Nova Scotia investigation has learned one man is believed to own at least three troublesome vessels that dot the Nova Scotia coastline — and is linked to several others. Together, they account for hours of legal proceedings and claims of unpaid berthing fees.

Tracy Dodds, a scrap metal dealer from Wolfville, declined an interview request for this story. But CBC News has traced his collection of ships through court documents and registries — vessels that officials say he's abandoned in harbours from Shelburne to Sheet Harbour.

Former anti-sealing ship among vessels

Perhaps the best known is the Farley Mowat, a former anti-sealing ship once owned by the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society. Dodds bought it at auction in 2013. Today it's tied up at Shelburne's Marine Terminal.

The Farley Mowat sank at the wharf last summer, which led to an expensive recovery project that included raising the vessel and containing oil and fuel.

Shelburne Mayor Karen Mattatall said that process likely cost between $400,000 and $500,000.

In cases where the owner is unwilling or unable to pay, such recovery projects are carried out by the Canadian Coast Guard, which is usually reimbursed by a national pollution fund made up of tariffs collected from the shipping industry.

"It's a lot of money and very unnecessary," Mattatall said in an interview.

Karen Mattatall, Mayor of Shelburne

Shelburne Mayor Karen Mattatall said the process to clean up the MV Farley Mowat likely cost between $400,000 and $500,000. (CBC)

Derelict vessels dumped in small harbours have become such an issue in Nova Scotia that meetings between municipal and federal officials, and with the general public, will be held next week in Shelburne to discuss the problem.

And it's not only Nova Scotia. Today, New Democrat MP Sheila Malcolmson, who represents Nanaimo-Ladysmith in British Columbia, is set to introduce a private member's bill in the House of Commons to amend the Canada Shipping Act to deal with abandoned vessels.

Court ordered ship removed

In December, the lawyer for the town of Shelburne requested the Federal Court order Dodds to remove the Farley Mowat by Jan. 15 and if it is still there by Feb. 9, to appear before a judge to explain why he should not be held in contempt and fined or imprisoned. To date, the court has not issued such an order.

The Town of Shelburne says the Farley Mowat is just one of six derelict vessels belonging to various owners it has been forced to deal with in the past five years.

In most cases, the town paid to have the vessels removed and cut up, a cost that ran between $5,000 and $25,000 per ship. In some cases, those expenses were offset by materials salvaged and resold.

"This is not just a problem in Shelburne. It's a huge problem in Nova Scotia. It's a huge problem in Canada," Mattatall said.

'Like taking an old car and letting it rust'

Indeed, the fight by municipalities, harbour authorities and private businesses to get rid of unwanted ships can be long and costly.

A town councillor in Bridgewater — where Dodds used to own two sister ships still tied up at the wharf — said the longer unwanted vessels sit on the LaHave River, the uglier they look.

"It's like taking an old car and letting it rust in your front yard and all of a sudden all these weeds come up through. It's the same thing bringing these ships up here," said Sandra Mailman.

Sandra Mailman

Sandra Mailman, a councillor in Bridgewater, says municipalities have few options to deal with derelict and abandoned vessels. (CBC)

Aside from the aesthetics, she's concerned about the risk to the river.

"You've got asbestos. You've got lead. You've got things that are obviously harming the environment, besides all the old fuel," she said.

While the bills pile up for various communities and businesses, so do complaints from residents. Mailman says municipalities feel helpless.

'We have no say here'

"The ships sit in the water, which is actually under federal jurisdiction, so we have no say here," she said. "And this is considered industrial so we can't cite them with an unsightly premises because it's an industrial area.

"It's one of those catch-22 things we've been battling forever."

Bernadette Jordan, the Liberal MP for South Shore-St. Margarets, says one of the challenges with derelict and abandoned ships is determining the rightful owner.

"Oftentimes they aren't registered once a vessel is sold. They don't register the new owners with the proper authorities," Jordan said.

Previous attempts to amend act go nowhere

In November, Shelburne brought forward a resolution at a convention of the Union of Nova Scotia Municipalities.

It called on the government of Nova Scotia and the Federation of Canadian Municipalities to petition Ottawa to pass legislation that would give federal authorities a clear mandate to act on derelict vessels and prosecute owners.

The resolution passed unanimously.

Previous attempts by members of Parliament to amend the Canada Shipping Act to address the issue of abandoned or derelict vessels have gone nowhere.