Owners are ditching their boats on Toronto's waterfront. Here's what the city is doing about it

The City of Toronto is taking steps to combat an increasingly common eyesore: wrecked or abandoned boats that are sometimes leaking pollutants into Lake Ontario. Right now, only the Coast Guard and Transport Canada have the authority to remove them.

41 hazardous or abandoned vessels identified from Pickering to St. Catharines

Cori Campbell calls the problem of wrecked boats in Bluffers Park 'heartbreaking.' In the background is an abandoned boat that's been there for months awaiting removal by the federal government. Councillors want the city to be able to act unilaterally. (Sue Reid/CBC)

The City of Toronto is looking for ways to combat what some say is an increasingly common waterfront eyesore: wrecked or abandoned boats that sometimes leak pollutants into Lake Ontario.

Council voted last month to ask the federal government for more power so it can get those boats out of the water faster — something it doesn't have the authority to do now.

Cori Campbell, who describes herself as a daily visitor to Bluffer's Park in Scarborough, calls the problem "heartbreaking." She says she's seen three abandoned boats there so far this year and wonders why it takes so long for the authorities to get rid of them. 

"Why do they wait until they sink?" an exasperated Campbell asked.

"This year has been the most problematic. I'm not familiar with any that have been abandoned here prior to this year. Never seen it like this."

This abandoned cabin cruiser sat near the Bluffer's Park public boat launch for weeks before it was removed during the winter. (Submitted by Cori Campbell)

Only the Canadian Coast Guard, Transport Canada or a vessel's owner can legally remove a nuisance boat from the waterfront. But councillors and some park users complain federal authorities are taking too long to remove abandoned vessels, some of which have been leaking oil, gas or other pollutants into the lake. Two abandoned boats have sunk within the past year — one in Bluffer's Park in Coun. Gary Crawford's ward, the other in Coun. Mark Grimes's west-end ward.

Grimes and Crawford brought forward a motion last month calling on city staff to look for ways to expedite the removals, even allowing the city to step in directly without waiting for federal agencies.

Robert Brooks, director of the Canadian Coast Guard's Vessels of Concern program, says his organization is tracking more than 2,000 problem vessels across the country. The Coast Guard triages those boats and, in conjunction with Transport Canada, acts quickly to get the most hazardous boats out of the water, he says.

A total of 41 hazardous or abandoned vessels have been identified along the west end of Lake Ontario, from Pickering to St. Catharines. Of those, two have since been removed, either by the coast guard or by the owner.

"We can't be in all places at one time," Brooks told CBC News. "We're protecting the highest risk areas first."

Brooks says the authority to remove nuisance or dangerous boats is relatively new: The Wrecked, Abandoned or Hazardous Vessels Act only came into force in 2019 so it's difficult to say whether the problem is growing.

Coun. Gary Crawford's Scarborough Southwest ward includes Bluffer's Park. He wants staff to investigate ways to speed up the removal of abandoned boats. (Paul Smith/CBC)

But, he says, the coast guard is expecting to see more abandoned vessels in the years ahead, partly due to the pandemic. 

"The financial crisis that we find ourselves in can make vessel ownership challenging," he said. "It can be an expensive business to be in, or hobby to have."

Brooks says the Coast Guard also expects climate change to make the problem worse due to."more frequent storms" and "more harsh weather" leading to "an increase in vessels drifting, breaking free from their moorage, breaking free from docks."

A blue steel-hulled sailboat, abandoned by its owner, sits tied to the public boat launch at Bluffer's Park. It's on the Canadian Coast Guard's inventory of abandoned vessels waiting for removal. (Mike Smee/CBC)

He says people who abandon their vessels can face stiff penalties if they're caught — up to six months in jail and fines of up to $25,000.

Once a boat has been identified as abandoned, the Coast Guard decides how urgent its removal is, Brooks says. If the vessel is unsafe — leaking pollutants, for example — the Coast Guard sends in an emergency team to remove it. Otherwise, Transport Canada is responsible for getting rid of it.

But Grimes and Crawford say the process takes too long. 

"It's very frustrating and frustrating for the residents, too," Crawford said. "I get a lot of phone calls from a number of residents who are just saying they see these boats sitting there, a week, month after month," he told CBC News.

Coun Mark Grimes, who represents Etobicoke Lakeshore, and Crawford authored a motion that calls on city staff to look for ways to expedite the removal of abandoned boats. (John Rieti/CBC)

"But again, how do you get them out in a reasonable timeframe?" 

In a written statement, Grimes said he too thinks the city ought to speed up the process.

"If there's a way that the city can help remove these boats before they sink, and before they become an environmental disaster, then I think we should be looking at that," Grimes said.

However, both Transport Canada and the Coast Guard say the city already can act alone without federal permission in some cases. If someone ties a boat to city property, such as a public boat launch, and abandons it, the city can legally remove it, Transport Canada says in a written statement.

Brooks says it can take time for federal authorities to find a boat's owner before removing it. But he says he welcomes any help from the city to expedite removals.

"I think our best strategy is to work with those closest to the challenges and combine resources where we can," he said.

Campbell, who says she's a lifelong visitor to Bluffer's Park, told CBC News she'd never seen an abandoned wreck until this year. (Sue Reid/CBC )

Meanwhile, Campbell says she believes people are using Bluffer's Park's public boat launch and docks as a cheap dumping ground.

"People can come here and abandon boats under the cover of darkness," she said.

If its a wrecked vessel, it's going to cost them to take it to a dump."


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