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The S.C. Department of Natural Resources has identified several abandoned boats in local waters, but the agency has no money to remove them.
Lt. Gentry Thames of the law enforcement division covering Beaufort County said the DNR found about 25 area boats it suspects are abandoned or moored illegally. Orange notices posted on the boats in Broad Creek on Hilton Head Island and Lucy and Factory creeks in the Beaufort area alert owners to contact the agency.
If the DNR is not contacted within 45 days of the posting, the boats will be considered abandoned, said DNR Lt. Robert McCullough.
Since January, the DNR has surveyed the state's coast and identified 209 boats that are derelict, sunken or moored illegally, said DNR Lt. Gary Sullivan.
A state law enacted in December defines abandoned boats as any watercraft that has been moored, stranded, wrecked, sunk or sinking for more than 45 days. The new law did not come with any money to enforce it. Boats legally moored or on private property are exempt.
Once the DNR identifies the boats, it will try to contact the registered owners, Sullivan said. If owners don't move the boats, the law carries penalties of fines up to $5,000 or 30 days in jail.
If a boat is not registered to anyone and an owner cannot be found, the cost of moving the boat would fall to local governments, Sullivan said.
The DNR tried to help with those costs by applying for $2 million in federal stimulus money, but the grant was denied by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Sullivan said the municipalities would not be fined if they can't afford to remove the boats.
Paul Sommerville, vice chairman of the Beaufort County Council, said the DNR has not approached the county to talk about the new law. However, he said the county would find money to remove the boats if necessary.
"We are very concerned about water quality, and this is just another element to maintain pristine waterways," he said. "When you think about all those things that are on those boats that will end up in the estuary when they sink -- fuel and other things -- you don't want that to settle to the bottom of our rivers and creeks. It's like everything else, the more people, the more boats, the more you have to pay attention."
In Beaufort County, marina operators say they don't think abandoned boats are as much of a problem as those moored illegally.
Chris Wimmer, harbor master of the Palmetto Bay Marina on Broad Creek, said if agencies would enforce mooring laws, they wouldn't have to figure out who would pay to remove the boats.
State law allows boat owners to anchor temporarily in open water as long as they hold the correct title and registration, keep lights on at night and do not block navigable channels. But mooring is considered more permanent because boats are tied to underwater structures, which requires a state permit from the Office of Ocean and Coastal Resource Management, a division of the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control.
Dan Burger, OCRM spokesman, said the agency recognizes illegal mooring is an increasing problem but does not have enough staff to address the issue. In December, DHEC closed about 2,000 feet of oyster beds in Broad Creek because of boats illegally moored there.
When more than 10 boats are moored in an area, it meets the definition of a marina, according to DHEC spokesman Adam Myrick. The agency automatically closes shellfish waters near marinas because of concerns related to fuel, boat traffic and the potential for waste coming off boats that would make oysters unsafe to eat.
The beds will remain closed until water quality samples indicate the oysters are safe for consumption or the boats are removed, Myrick said.
Though the boats are anchored, Wimmer said they are not there just temporarily. Many of them do not keep lights on at night, he said, which is a safety issue for those navigating Broad Creek after dark.
"I don't think it's an issue of people just leaving their boats and disappearing," Wimmer said. "I think it's an issue of leaving boats that are in some extent of ill repair and finding that mooring or anchoring them out there is an inexpensive way to meet the docking or mooring needs of the boat."