America's Underwater Junkyard

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Ocean Conservancy

A bird caught in marine debris

Below America's waters lies a junkyard. Every year, thousands of boats, barges and ships sink or are abandoned in the U.S., having been rendered unusable due to accidents, weather damage, age or an owner's financial duress, and the vast majority of them are never recovered.

"You go to any harbor or shoreline in the country, and you'll find derelict and abandoned vessels," says Doug Helton, acting director of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Marine Debris Program. NOAA data suggest there are at least 10,000 abandoned ships and obstructions peppering the U.S. coast, but experts predict there are far more. Helton says 3,000 to 4,000 abandoned vessels were scattered around the coast in the wake of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 alone.

Abandoned ships wreak havoc on the marine ecosystem long after they've sunk. Decaying wreckages leach toxic chemicals like petroleum products and PCBs that remain in the water harming or destroying sea life and potentially enter the food chain, eventually getting ingested by humans. Sometimes dead watercraft foster the growth of new sea life that threatens the pre-existing local ecosystem. On Palmyra Atoll, 1,000 miles south of Hawaii, a population explosion of corallimorph, an aggressive creature similar to anemones and coral, killed almost all the coral growing around a long-line fishing vessel that sank in 1991, according to a report published in August in the journal PLoS One by Thierry Work, a wildlife-disease specialist at the U.S. Geological Survey, and his colleagues. The corallimorph were probably attracted to the leaching iron, a valuable nutrient in the sea, says Work. Since the organism, which sparsely populates other parts of the reef, grows fast, is aggressive and reproduces in three different ways, it outcompeted other marine life on the reef. "It's a carpet of living animals that destroyed all the other organisms underneath," said Work. "We were able to show man-made structures were responsible for the growth of these organisms."

Sunken vessels can also trail deadly debris. Fishing boats, for example, which are stocked with nets and traps, often continue to "ghost fish" after the ship itself has been abandoned. The biggest man-made threat to the endangered monk seal of Hawaii is entanglement in derelict fishing gear, according to Keith Criddle, a marine-policy professor at the University of Alaska in Fairbanks. Off North Carolina's coast, ghost crab pots continue to trap and kill diamondback terrapin turtles. In a 2004 report titled An Ocean Blueprint for the 21st Century, the U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy found that at least 267 different species were affected by derelict fishing gear, including 86% of all species of sea turtles. "Fishing gear is intended to catch things, so if it gets lost, it can catch and kill things for extended periods of time," says Criddle.

In September, Criddle authored a National Resource Council report, mandated by Congress and funded by the Coast Guard, that recommended that America reduce all marine debris — man-made substances and litter, not just from ships — to zero. Under the International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships, signed by 128 countries, vessels are currently allowed to discharge certain pollutants, like food and operational wastes, as long as ships are away from the coastline and other specially protected areas, such as the Mediterranean and Baltic seas. But Criddle's report warns that despite all regulations, there is still a significant amount of marine debris. "We lack a coordinated strategy dealing with land- and sea-based debris," says Criddle.

Of course, there are governmental policies in place prohibiting ship abandonment: state laws fine and sometimes jail owners of derelict vessels. The problem is, there's a strong financial disincentive against retrieving and recycling sunken vessels. Dismantling a 40-ft. yacht costs an owner on average $5,000 to $10,000, but the costs can run to 100 times that amount. "You can't just crush it up into a cube," says Helton. Meanwhile, state fines for abandonment run a lot lower, as little as $100. Definitions of vessel, abandonment and ownership also vary among states, which means that ship owners can sometimes sink boats and get off scot-free. Federal legislation, meanwhile, typically only deals with pollution or obstruction caused by vessels, not with ship abandonment itself.

Legislation is slowly beginning to change. Since 2003, Washington State's vessel-removal program has led a crackdown on derelict boats, using ramped-up boat-registration fees as funding for the program, which has so far cleared 188 boats. "It gave us financial capability, plus the legal hammer if we needed to use it," says Doug Sutherland, the state's commissioner of public lands. Other state officials have expressed interest in Washington's model. In September, the California legislature passed a bill to increase fines for owners of derelict vessels. And last year, the U.S. House of Representatives passed an act that gives NOAA funds and authorization to remove abandoned vessels damaging coral reefs.

In some cases, ships are purposely introduced to the underwater landscape. In 2006 the U.S. Navy sank the decommissioned WWII aircraft carrier U.S.S. Oriskany off the coast of Pensacola, Fla., in the Gulf of Mexico and turned it into an artificial reef. It is the first and so far only artificial-reefing project undertaken by the Navy Inactive Ships Program, which is charged with disposing of old warships (which are typically dismantled and recycled or turned into museums). It took nearly $20 million to ready the ship for safe sinking in accordance with standards set forth by the Environmental Protection Agency, which concluded that the 700 lb. of toxic PCBs aboard the Oriskany had been secured and would not harm wildlife. But the science regarding the safety of artificial reefing is still being developed. Chris Dorsett, vice president of fishery conservation and management at the Ocean Conservancy, says that toxins can still leach from boats underwater and that these artificial reefs can "increase catchability of species," leading to even more overfishing.

The environmental impact of undersea wreckage can't always be seen easily from the shore. Helton says it would help if owners of small fishing boats and jet skis as well as giant ore ships and oceangoing freighters could keep in mind that "when a vessel is lost, it's not gone."