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Governments missing the boat on problem of derelict vessels

The derelict ferry, Queen of Sidney, sits along the shores of Fraser River in Mission, B.C., June 27, 2012.

John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail

The Queen of Sidney's familiar, imposing funnel is just visible from the busy Lougheed Highway passing through this small rural offshoot of Mission. A short jaunt down a country road to the shores of the Fraser River, however, evokes shock.

There, the one-time pride of B.C. Ferries, reduced to a dismal, wasting hulk, floats in the middle of a marine junkyard.

Moored to the large vessel are a rusty barge, two aging fish boats, a couple of worn out tugs, and a listing, half-submerged wooden ferry that plied San Francisco Bay 90 years ago.

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It's a sad, unlikely end for the grand old ferry that ruled the main route between Vancouver and Victoria for 40 years, the first ship built for "Bennett's Navy" after Premier W.A.C. Bennett imposed public ownership on coastal passenger service.

Last week, threatened by the rising waters of the Fraser, the assemblage of deteriorating, dilapidated boats prompted the province to issue a rare environmental emergency declaration, allowing a crew to go in and secure the ships to new pilings, lest they break free and cause downstream havoc.

The Queen of Sidney, however, towed to its final resting place in 2002, is only the biggest of a bad lot. There are hundreds of derelict vessels strewn in sheltered and not so sheltered waters in and around the B.C. coast.

They foul bays, attract squatters, and often irritate people just by their unsightly presence. Yet no one seems able to get rid of them.

Although the mouldering ferry ship and adjacent broken-down vessels, for instance, have been an eyesore and a riverbank nuisance for years, the province's emergency declaration was necessary because no one – neither the municipality of Mission, nor B.C., nor Ottawa – has authority to order the site cleaned up.

The situation is frustrating, says provincial Environment Minister Terry Lake, who issued the edict.

"I would think the average British Columbian would ask himself: Why does it take so much bureaucracy and regulatory approval to build a dock on the water, and yet you can have a situation like this happen. Those boats are a mess."

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Federal marine authorities can step in only when there is a threat to navigation or spawning grounds. Provincial action is restricted to Crown-owned, foreshore land, while most municipalities can only wring their hands.

"It's a quagmire of underlapping jurisdiction," one bureaucrat observed, wryly.

The Union of B.C. Municipalities has persistently petitioned federal and provincial authorities to do something, so far without result.

In contrast to the State of Washington, which has used aggressive legislation to rid its waters of more than 300 derelict vessels in recent years, matters here continue to unfold slowly.

A joint working group involving numerous bureaucratic players has been struck, while Transport Canada is compiling an inventory of abandoned and derelict vessels on the coast.

"We have to see how big an issue it is. Then we can look at possible solutions," said Transport Canada spokeswoman Jillian Glover. The report is expected to be completed some time this summer.

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Jean Crowder, New Democratic MP for Nanaimo-Cowichan, has been amassing her own figures. So far, she said, 200 derelict vessels have been identified, with many more unidentified.

"Right now, either nobody has the authority, or nobody will take the responsibility, and it's gone on for years," said Ms. Crowder. She has put forward a private member's bill providing authorities with enhanced power to take action.

Meanwhile, communities plagued by non-working vessel problems are increasingly fed up.

In Chemainus, two offshore barges have sunk since January. Three more decaying barges remain anchored in the harbour, remnants of a planned breakwater to protect a hoped-for marina. A recent editorial in the local paper decried the failure to get rid of them. "Letting the barges sink one by one isn't the answer."

In nearby Cowichan Bay, the large, former fishing vessel Dominion 1, containing 26,000 litres of fuel, worried residents earlier this year, after breaking loose from its anchor during a wild storm and drifting about in the harbour.

On the idyllic Gulf Islands, residents had to wait 10 years before they were rid of a large, abandoned barge once used to host a McDonald's Restaurant at Expo 86.

With fiercer storms, fibreglass boats reaching the end of their useful life, and more and more fishermen leaving the industry, Sheila Malcolmson, chair of the Islands Trust Council, said the problem of cast-off vessels is getting worse.

"It's not just on the Gulf Islands, it's the entire coast," said Ms. Macolmson. "There is work behind the scenes, but it has not been fast at all. Everything just seems to churn away, without a permanent solution."

Back at the Queen of Sidney, Mission knows all about inaction. The municipality has sent numerous letters to a myriad of federal and provincial authorities, trying to get the ships cleaned out, without result.

The foreshore is owned by Gerald and Bob Tapp, a colourful pair of brothers in their 70s with a fondness for castoffs and reaping the odd dollar from them. As long as their collection of boats poses no risk to navigation, authorities say they are helpless. "There's no legislation to deal with aesthetics," said Ms. Glover.

Veteran fisherman Terry Slack thought he'd seen it all in his 60 years on the Fraser River, until he got a closeup look last year at the vessel graveyard.

"I thought, what the heck is this. I was amazed," he said. "Sooner or later, some sort of accident is going to happen out there. They've got to cut 'em up and get rid of them."

Mr. Slack, 71, then took a closer look and was yet more amazed. "I recognized a fish boat I'd helped repair when I was a shipwright. The Miss Marr, sitting right there on a sandbar. I was flabbergasted."

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