Looking from what remains of an old hulk across the waters to land.

The Dead Boats Disposal Society came to Cortes Island

The Dead Boats Disposal Society was on Cortes Island last week. 

John Roe (JR) said there are close to 4,000 abandoned boats in British Columbia, and he has been removing them for the past 30 years.  

The provincial government set up the Clean Coast, Clean Waters Initiative Fund and the federal government has the Abandoned Boats Program

“We have our team and are pretty proficient at boat removal. It just requires a lot of pre-work. The pre-work is myself going out as a volunteer, reaching out to the communities, coming up and documenting the boats,” said Roe. 

That is what brought him to Cortes Island.  

Screenshot of John Roe taken during our interview

JR: “I reached out to the Klahoose Nation. They’re renovating Gorge Harbor Marina and offered me a spot for my RV temporarily.  I’ve been here for three days. I’ll be here two more days, and then I’ll be back again once I start filing my paperwork.” 

CC: What have you found? 

JR: “Not a huge amount at the time. Cortes is  a very broad island with a lot of inlets. I go out mainly with my drone to areas that are accessible. We haven’t found a huge amount, but I know they’re here because we have received emails. Like everything else, they get shifted around. So it’s really up to the community to tell us where they are. If the boats aren’t put on some sort of documentation, they don’t get removed.”

CC: Have you found any abandoned boots? 

JR: “Yes, I found a few. I’m going down today to Gorge Harbour. I have a few emails that I have to go through now that I’m connected, but I’ll get them documented. I have about seven days from now until my first grant application to the province, and another 10 days after that to the federal government. Because we’re doing a lot of debris removal,  the province will help pay for that hopefully. If not, we’ll put it under a federal application.” 

“When we get rolling, we’re a big unit.  We have barges, cranes and things like that, so it’s very expensive for us to come.”

“What we’ve been telling the government is we’ll give a discount for volume. We don’t want to go and come back a year later for another boat. We’ll take them all at one time. Once we’re here, we move fast and everything’s just gone.”

CC: Have you found any boats in Squirrel Cove?

JR: “I have, I’m going back out today to document it. Says ‘a mine sweeper,’ I don’t think it was.” 

CC: Are you talking about the wreck by Basil Creek? (Photo at top of page) 

JR: “Yeah, I’ve seen pictures of that for a number of years and it’s even more deteriorated. I’ll do a quick assessment of it. I’m of the adage that if man put it in, we’re going to take it out. Our oceans are not to be a dumping ground for anything.” 

We hoped to meet when he arrived in Squirrel Cove, but that didn’t work. 

Instead, I met Randy Carlson, whose memories of that old wreck stretch back to another era.  

“I remember it before I started elementary school on Cortes around 1960. I used to live right on that side of the boat, on the shore with my grandparents living close by. During high tides in the summer, we used to swim out to it to play. My dad was killed in a logging accident. Mom and me went back to Grandma and Grandpa’s. I left in ’67, I think, to start high school in Vancouver and moved back last summer. It’s nice and quiet, which I need.” 

Joe Roe said he would be visiting the Klahoose that day, and then move on to the more remote northern reaches of Cortes Island. There are said to be a bunch of abandoned boats along those shores. He would use a drone to hunt for them.  

JR: “I’ve been up in this area on and off for 30 years. I’ve come up here by boat,  RV, and by plane over the summer months. I love this area.  I can’t get enough of it. I swim a lot, I dive a lot and things like that. So I make it a point of documenting all these boats. When our family moved here in ’94, we tried to move up into this area, but there was no employment at the time. We moved to Victoria and branched out since then. I live on Salt Spring Island now, on a farm.” 

“I’ve been concentrating on abandoned shellfish and fin fish farms for a very long period of time.”

 CC: What about the abandoned boats?  

JR: “We specialize in finding them, assessments of them, finding the monies and then working with our partners, in the Songhees and Esquimalt Nations, Salish Sea Industrial Services down in Victoria to remove them.

“We deal a lot with the Coast Guard and with the Transport Canada Receiver of Wreck (ROW). We notify them of the vessels we want to remove.” 

“Because I’ve been involved in the environmental aspects for a number of years, I can basically do an onsite assessment looking at the boat and looking at  the habitat that’s in and everything else, and come up with a category of removal.”

“Then we have to go through the process of identifying the owner.” 

“We prefer it of the owner comes forward and just signs their boat over to us. Going through the process with ROW could take 60 to 90 days. We apply for what they call a section 38, go back out to the vessel and post a notice. The person who owns that boat has up to 30 days to notify the federal government, not us.  It either stays on the list or doesn’t. Then we come back again and do another 30 day notice when we have the monies and the grants to remove.” 

Things don’t always go smoothly.  

JR: “We’ll do all our filings and everything else on the boats, get our section 38, then we’ll come and the boat is gone. Somebody’s removed it.” 

If one of the boats they came to remove has disappeared and they find a new one, they can sometimes take it instead.

“All it takes is a phone call with the feds; with the province it is a whole different world. The federal government gives us some leeway. They understand that it’s a broad coast out here and things happen a lot. The boats burn, they disappear, or somebody decides they’re going to move into it and we can’t touch them.” 

“We don’t pick on the liveaboards. They’ve been out here for years. We just hold our hands up, smile and keep going. It’s a newer issue because we have new people coming to the coast, who don’t understand how to live in the marine habitat.”

“I lived on this coast. I had my fish boat converted, and we’ve used it for an office for years. I really like living on the water. I’m too old to do it now. Too frail as they say, and my kids just go bananas at me when I do it.” 

 One of the services the Dead Boats Disposal Society offers is cleaning up docks that are full of garbage and debris. They also walk people through the process of disposing of abandoned boats.

JR: “We’re pulling out boats that the authorities have no record of. It’s a blessing for us because once we document them, we don’t have to process it with anybody. They have no record of them, so ’it doesn’t exist’ – unless it has a fishing license attached to it, or a name.”

“If it has a fishing license or a name, we have to haul that thing out, hold it for 30 days, do our due diligence in postings, and then dispose of it. That drives up our cost a bit, but that doesn’t happen very often.” 

Roe said that people who discover abandoned vessels can reach out through the Dead Boat Disposal Society facebook page, or their website, the dead boat disposal society.com.

They should first contact Transport Canada and the Coast Guard. 

“Call the 1-800 number and then, as best as you can, email us the location with a picture of the boat. Don’t be shy.  We’re not in the Kodak world anymore, take lots of pictures, send them to us. We want to get pictures of  the boat from multiple angles: port, starboard, stern and anything. Identify them and send them over to us.” 

“In particular, we have to look at the habitat too. The habitat is important because it allows us to prioritize with the agencies.  If it’s sitting in a eelgrass bed or shellfish bed, the priority for removal goes up.” 

“I want them all gone, but we have to work within our parameters at the moment.”

CC: Do you expect to be returning to Cortes 

JR: “Yes, I came up here by my RV and I brought my scooter in the back and I should have brought a boat. I have my small little inflatable, but I’ll be back up.  I’m making my way over to Quadra and stopping there, then Hornby and then Gabriola and back to Salt Spring.” 

“We have to get this all documented, so I’ll be spending a great deal of time in the office and with our crews in Victoria, getting the proposal written and I’m back out on the road. I’m grabbing a boat and heading further up the coast and I’ll be back by boat within probably a month. Until the job is done, usually right until January/ February before we get them all out.

CC: Do you have any final thoughts you want to mention?

JR: “You have to keep your politicians informed that you don’t want this stuff dumped in the ocean.We have to find a solution to that. We don’t have a program in BC.” 

“A lot of these boats end up in somebody’s backyard. Uncle Joe dies and then they sell it for a dollar. That shouldn’t happen, they end up in the harbour. I end up dealing with it sooner or later. I have pictures from people sending me pictures of  their boat, and then a year later they’re in the water because there was no program to get rid of them.”

“The costs go up exponentially. So  don’t put them in, and if you see them, make sure you tell somebody – whether it is us or there’s lots of nonprofits out there removing abandoned boats.” 

Links of Interest:

Top image credit: The old wreck at Squirrel Cove – Photo by Roy L Hales

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