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Abandon ship takes on new meaning: environmental hazard

Officials in coastal states are worried that the high  upkeep of boats in the depressed economy has mariners literally abandoning their ships in droves — a practice that could threaten the environment.

There's no official tally of cast-off boats, but  an unusually high number are reportedly being dumped in waters off the coasts of Florida, South Carolina and Washington State; California is mulling a measure that would let owners surrender their vessels to the state, according to the New York Times. Other media reported last summer that more than 200 boats had been left in New York's Jamaica Bay. "Our waters have become dumping grounds," Major Paul Ouellette of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission told the Times. "It's got to the point where something has to be done."

The environmental hazards come from leaking oil and fuel, as well as degrading biocides, such as copper paints, that prevent barnacles and algae from attaching to the bottom of a vessel, said Miriam Gordon, California state director of the environmental group Clean Water Action. Oil and fuel contain Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons (PAHs) that can kill fish and other marine species if they spill, and copper can sink into sediment, also killing marine life, Gordon tells ScientificAmerican.com today.

Other problems come when a boat sinks, creating giant holes and patches in sea grass – a kind of nursery for marine life seeking food and shelter, she says. Healthy sea grass is also necessary  for species that feed on fish eggs there, such as birds and ducks.

Margaret Podlich, vice president of government affairs for Boat US, an association of vessel owners based in Alexandria, Va., tells ScientificAmerican.com that abandoned boats are nothing new, but may be more pronounced now. "This is an old problem being exaggerated because of the economy," Podlich says.

Have a boat you want to get rid of but can't sell? Give it away, Podlich says, or pay to have it properly disposed of in a landfill.

Image by alphalx1987 via Flickr

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