Concern in B.C. that federal bill to tackle scourge of derelict boats won't be watertight

Bill C-64 could be passed as early as this summer, establishing new rules around abandoned, rotting and sinking vessels in Canada, but stakeholders in B.C. worry the law will be too weak.

Bill C-64 to add new rules around abandoned, rotting and sinking vessels

A sailboat is among several derelict vessels that have washed up in Cadboro Bay. (Megan Thomas/CBC)

Sailors, environmentalists and politicians in B.C. hope a new bill set to pass in Ottawa will finally help keep dilapidated, abandoned, half-sunk or rotting vessels from polluting the province's water ways and coast lines.

Derelict boats are ubiquitous in B.C. waters.  A federal study in 2014 found 245 of them across the province — 45 in Ladysmith on Vancouver Island alone. These are sometimes abandoned at sea or deliberately sunk. Often, they pose navigational hazards.

'Not a pretty sight'

Five years ago, sailor John Low even hooked one with his anchor when he was moored off Thetis Island off Vancouver Island on his boat Summer Breeze.

Low struggled to raise his anchor and when he finally did, he found himself looking through the window of a small cabin cruiser.

"I've seen them on the surface of course, but one doesn't tend to see them underneath the surface unless you tend to hook them as I did," the retired Armstrong B.C. resident said.

"The sight of derelict boats drawn up on the beaches here and there, or just barely floating here and there is not a pretty sight."

This pleasure vessel was found abandoned and half-sunk near Lions Bay B.C. in 2013. (CBC)

Abandoned boats are also a serious environmental hazard, as the materials they are made of — including fuel in their tanks — can leak into ocean water and pose a threat to sensitive marine environments.

Peter Luckham, a professional scuba diver and mariner, who also speaks for Islands Trust, which represents 35,000 residents and property owners on B.C.'s Gulf islands, says too many people walk away from their boats, leaving them to mar B.C.'s coast.

Luckham recently spoke before a parliamentary committee looking at Bill C-64, which seeks to prevent boats from being abandoned in the first place.

"A lack of clear regulation does not help," he told the committee.

Who's responsible?

The bill aims to address irresponsible vessel management by prohibiting owners from abandoning boats, and establishing administrative and enforcement rules including penalties to encourage the responsible ownership and upkeep of boats.

Transport Canada along with the Department of Fisheries and Ocean will be the lead agencies for dealing with derelict boats, Transportation Minister Marc Garneau told a parliamentary committee

In the past, there has been confusion over who is responsible for towing the boats and paying to have them broken down, recycled or disposed of.

In 2016, this wooden boat wound up on the beach in Florencia Bay, at the southern end of Pacific Rim National Park Reserve. (Renee Wissink/Parks Canada)

Still, several B.C. stakeholders, like Luckham, want the bill to go further, making it mandatory for owners to register pleasure boats federally to ensure owners are held more accountable.

There is also a desire for a program in which owners could turn in their old vessels to deter owners from scuttling or abandoning them. Washington state and Oregon have such a program.

Anna Johnson, a lawyer with West Coast Environment Law agrees that the registration of smaller vessels is needed to better track down owners.

She also wants stronger language in the bill that would require fisheries and transport ministries to deal with abandoned vessels rather than leaving the matter to their discretion.

The idea for a federal bill to solve the problem of derelict boats is not new. Over the past 15 years, at least three private members bills have been introduced. All failed. Two came from NDP MPs, and another came from from a Conservative. 

The current government bill appears to have bipartisan support.

'Bill not complete'

"This bill is something I'm going to vote in favour of because we need something, and despite my best efforts, the bill is not complete," said NDP MP Sheila Malcolmson, whose own derelict boat bill was quashed in November 2017.

Malcolmson also wants amendments to the bill similar to what other B.C. stakeholders want such as vessel registration and a turn-in program.

​The bill is set to be debated in the House of Commons and could be implemented as soon as this summer, according to Malcolmson.

The remains of a vessel that washed up on the beach in Cadboro Bay in Victoria B.C. (Megan Thomas/CBC)