Two abandoned and derelict vessels in a salt marsh.

Abandoned and Derelict Vessels

Marine debris can range greatly in size, from tiny plastic pieces invisible to the human eye, to large abandoned and derelict vessels. These vessels litter ports, waterways, and estuaries all over the country, and they can cause major problems.

What are abandoned and derelict vessels?

Abandoned and derelict vessels are vessels that are no longer taken care of and pose a threat to people and the environment. Though the legal definition of abandoned and derelict vessels varies, “derelict” often refers to vessels that are neglected with an identifiable owner, while “abandoned” vessels are those where the owner is unknown or has surrendered rights of ownership. 

Vessels become abandoned and derelict for many reasons. Owners may neglect or abandon their boats when they can no longer afford to maintain them. Some boats may break loose from anchors or moorings and drift away, and some may be stolen. Severe weather events, like hurricanes or flooding, can also result in large numbers of vessels becoming abandoned and derelict. In these conditions boats can sink at moorings, become submerged in tidal areas, or strand on shorelines, reefs, or in marshes.

Why are abandoned and derelict vessels a problem?

Abandoned and derelict vessels can cause problems for our ocean, waterways, and Great Lakes by blocking navigational channels, damaging ecosystems, and diminishing the recreational value of the surrounding area. Some vessels may contain fuel and hazardous materials, which could leak into the surrounding water. 

Removing abandoned and derelict vessels is often complicated and expensive. Some vessels are located in hard-to-reach areas, requiring large, specialized equipment for recovery and transportation. The wreckage may last for many years, breaking apart and creating widespread debris that threatens marine and coastal resources. Assessing, removing, and disposing of these vessels also requires significant financial and technical resources, and the laws around these vessels can be different across states. These complications can make abandoned and derelict vessels a difficult problem to address.

How can abandoned and derelict vessels be prevented?

Abandoned and derelict vessels are dangerous and costly problems, but they can be prevented! The NOAA Marine Debris Program supports abandoned and derelict vessel prevention and removal efforts across our coastal states and the Great Lakes, including online resources to educate and inform boat owners and the public. 

Boat owners should keep their registration current, purchase insurance, perform regular maintenance, and create an end-of-life plan for vessels. This plan may include: 

  • Disposing of hazardous materials properly
  • Recycling valuable parts and metals
  • Bringing the vessel to a salvage shop or landfill for recycling and disposal
  • Researching whether your state has a voluntary vessel turn-in/disposal program. 

Who is responsible for recovering abandoned and derelict vessels, and how can I report one near me?

The NOAA Marine Debris Program created an ADV InfoHub as a central source of information regarding abandoned and derelict vessels, or ADVs. It explains how each coastal state handles abandoned and derelict vessels in an effort to bring together information and create a comprehensive look at this subject. Users can access information on local legislation, policies, funding, and available programs to address the problem, as well as links to relevant publications, case studies, and legal reviews. Check out the InfoHub to find a contact in your area for reporting abandoned and derelict vessels.

In addition to the funding available from state agencies and other resources, the NOAA Marine Debris Program supports abandoned and derelict vessel removal through a competitive grants process. Through our Marine Debris Removal Grant opportunity, the NOAA Marine Debris Program has supported the removal of almost 400 abandoned and derelict vessels.

What should I do if I find a derelict vessel or other large object that may become a hazard to navigation?

When approaching large or hazardous marine debris, use common sense and follow general safety guidelines. If you don't know what an item is, don't touch it. If it appears hazardous, contact the appropriate authorities. 

If you encounter a derelict vessel or other large debris, contact your local authorities and a state emergency response or environmental health agency to report the item. If the debris item is a potential hazard to navigation, immediately contact your nearest U.S. Coast Guard Sector Command Center. Do not attempt to move the item.

If the vessel is leaking oil or other hazardous materials, contact your local authorities, a state emergency response or environmental health agency, and the U.S. Coast Guard National Response Center at 1-800-424-8802 to report the item with as much information as possible. Do not touch the item or attempt to move it. If the item poses a serious hazard and requires immediate attention by authorities, make a 911 emergency call.

For more information on handling marine debris, please see our marine debris handling guidelines.

Last updated Tue, 02/07/2023 - 07:43 am EST