WARRENTON — It happened at night — these things usually do. 

The boat showed up in the Warrenton Marina, its fishing permits already sold. Someone else bought it from the previous owners for next to nothing. They took what they wanted off it and left it sitting in a boat slip. It’s still there.

Last month, marina staff issued seizure notices to the owners of seven derelict or abandoned boats in the Warrenton Marina, most of them older, wooden commercial vessels and ranging in size from a 26-foot recreational boat to the 62-foot wooden fishing vessel Master Chris. Often such boats end up abandoned in the marina because the owners get sick, or there’s a death and the question of who has ownership is muddied. Others realize they’ve taken on a bigger project than they can afford or have the knowledge to tackle.

“I think life just happens to a lot of these people,” said Harbormaster Jane Sweet.

All of the owners owe the marina several thousand dollars in salvage, towing, storage and disposal costs and could owe even more if the marina ends up needing to demolish the vessels. If an unattended vessel ends up sinking — like the abandoned 44-foot Western Skies did this summer — the costs increase along with the hassle to marina staff.

A state fund created over a dozen years ago to help offset the cost of dealing with derelict or abandoned recreational boats is fed in part by the cost of title registrations of recreational boats. But the Oregon State Marine Board says more and more of that money is going toward the cleanup of former commercial vessels instead — everything from tugs to salmon trollers. Bigger and heavier, these boats are much more expensive to deal with.

“When we look at the state fund, we spend a disproportionate amount of money on removing former commercial vessels,” said Rachel Graham, the marine board’s interim director. “It’s an equity issue.”

But for public marinas and ports, derelict commercial boats are the problem at hand.

The Abandoned/Derelict Commercial Vessel Task Force, a shifting group that includes representatives from ports, public marinas, sheriff’s offices, state agencies and salvage companies, was created early last year to try to answer questions and gather information around the issues of commercial boats that have been dropped at ports and marinas or left in state waterways. They hope to release a paper with their findings by the end of the year.

Even getting a good sense of how many commercial vessels are in the state was challenging, said Graham. No one agency interacts with or records all commercial vessels. But the big hurdle still in their way is the question of money.

The state’s derelict boat fund provides $150,000 per biennium for the removal of abandoned or derelict boats up to 200 gross pounds or, to use a different measurement, up to about 100 feet in length.

“If we were just focusing on recreational boats our $150,000 would probably be sufficient for what we get, but when we agree to participate in assisting in removing commercial boats, we deplete our fund pretty quickly,” Graham said.

Last biennium, the state agreed to put funds toward removing three commercial vessels. A federal grant and a boost from the Oregon Department of State Lands offset some of the cost, but “with three boats we almost used all of our money,” Graham said.

For salvage companies, it’s difficult to build a good business plan around removing derelict boats in Oregon. The work they do for the state or ports and marinas are “one off” jobs and the costs to boat owners are steep. So the dilemma remains: “How do you make owners pay to recycle their boats?” Graham said. 

“The easier option for many is to sell it to someone else who has boat dreams … and it just keeps getting passed down and down.”

This year, for the first time in 12 years, all the vessels at the Warrenton Marina’s commercial docks are working boats.

“Every single one of them,” said Sweet. “That in itself is a huge achievement. … and I want to keep it that way.”

The seven derelict boats on her list right now have been moved elsewhere in the marina to open up space.

Such boats represent a loss of revenue in more ways than one. They camp in slips a working boat, with owners who pay moorage fees and looks after their property, could occupy. Without an active owner attached, marina staff take on a babysitting role. They check the boats after storms hit the area. Many of the vessels require pumps running day and night to keep them afloat, another task and cost that fall on the shoulders of marina staff.

When Western Skies sank at the docks in July and began leaking fuel, the incident consumed Sweet’s time. She and her staff had to act quickly to keep a bad situation from growing worse, coordinate with the U.S. Coast Guard, figure out how to contain the leaks, get the boat floating again and keep it afloat. When power went out for nearly half an hour during a weekend storm this month, staff raced to the marina keep an eye on Western Skies and the other abandoned boats. 

Warrenton faces a growing demand for slips and Sweet is increasing efforts to deal with problem boats. To stem the flow of abandoned vessels into the marina, she now requires people to provide proof of insurance and current documentation and registration. Marina staff are being proactive about the seizure process. But only one owner of a derelict boat in recent years has cleared his account with the marina. Warrenton’s seizure notices went out as certified mail. Most came back unaccepted.

If no owners step up before the deadlines in the seizure process run out, the marina could sell the vessels for parts. It’s possible some money from the marine board could also come Warrenton’s way. Sweet isn’t sure yet what they’ll do.

For now, and perhaps for the foreseeable future, she said, “We’re responsible for seven boats that aren’t ours.”