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A Japanese fishing boat lost in the Pacific Ocean after the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami was sighted drifting 150 nautical miles of the southern coast of Haida Gwaii by the crew of an aircraft on a routine surveillance patrol. Transport Canada has identified many vessels of concern, including abandoned and unseaworthy ships in waters along the entire British Columbia coast. More than three dozen are currently moored in Ladysmith Harbour.

Department of National Defence/The Canadian Press

Canada is no longer going to give a free pass to boat owners who dump their dirty old vessels in Canadian harbours and waterways.

Transport Minister Marc Garneau's new Wrecked, Abandoned or Hazardous Vessels Act, introduced Monday in the House of Commons, would make it illegal to abandon boats in Canada, while empowering the government to go after the owners of the 600 derelict vessels already polluting the country's waterways.

Right now, owners who dump and run from their boats are not subject to any penalties, and some see abandoning it as the cheapest, easiest route when a boat is no longer operational, Garneau told a news conference.

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"This has to stop," he said.

Abandoned boats are an environmental hazard, sometimes sitting for years in harbours or abandoned along coast lines with fuel still in their tanks – "a blight on the countryside," as Garneau put it.

The legislation, which was promised as part of the federal government's Oceans Protections Plan, brings into Canadian law the Nairobi International Convention on the Removal of Wrecks, a 10-year-old international agreement that establishes uniform rules for removing abandoned and derelict vessels from international waters.

Canada will also require owners of large commercial vessels to carry insurance to cover the potential cost of disposing of the ships, and there will also be significant penalties in place to go after those who do abandon their vessels.

Garneau acknowledged that while the bill gives the government new powers to try and force owners of existing derelict vessels to remove them safely, it packs a less powerful punch for those boats.

There will be no fines or penalties imposed on the owner of a boat which has already been abandoned, said Garneau. The ownership of some of them can't even be determined, he noted, which is why Canada is also working with the provinces and territories to establish better rules for identifying boats.

The government is going to establish an inventory of the existing vessels with a goal to try to remove them all.

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B.C. NDP MP Sheila Malcolmson said the number of abandoned boats is actually "in the thousands," according to her unofficial conversations with Coast Guard officials. After 15 years of urging federal governments to do something, it's nice to see some action, she added.

"This is absolutely a breakthrough for coastal communities," Malcolmson said.

She said she needs some time to go through the 120-page bill to see if it fills all the gaps she believes have been identified by coastal communities. Garneau has committed to working with provinces to establish better licensing and registration systems for pleasure craft and launch a study to find the gaps in federal commercial vessel registration systems.

Malcolmson said the system for registering boats has become so lax it is fairly easy for someone to abandon a boat without it being traced back.

The town of Ladysmith, B.C., in her home riding is dealing with the effects of an abandoned vessel that sank in the harbour Oct. 21, spewing oil and gas into the water. The Coast Guard managed to contain the leaks, but Malcolmson said the federal government identified the boat as a risk three years ago.

It would have been a lot easier and cheaper to remove it before it sank, she noted.

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Removing old boats can be prohibitively expensive. Last year it cost more than $1-million to remove the Viki Lyne II from Ladysmith's harbour, four years after it was abandoned nearby.

The government of Nova Scotia spent nearly $20 million to remove the MV Miner, a shipping vessel that ran aground in Nova Scotia in 2011 while it was being towed to a scrap yard in Turkey.

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