Legislation makes abandoning a vessel and irresponsible management illegal in Canada

an-abandoned-boat-on-the-lake Photo by Zoran Milosavljevic/Shutterstock

Comprehensive new legislation from the Canadian government, the Wrecked, Abandoned or Hazardous Vessels Act (C-64), may sound like it’s aimed at freighters and tankers, but it could prove to be an important tool in combatting another problem: recreational boats that are scuttled by owners.

“Wrecked, abandoned, and hazardous vessels can pose environmental, economic, social, and safety risks, and are a concern for coastal and shoreline communities,” a Transport Canada senior communications advisor tells us. “As part of the Oceans Protection Plan, the Government is implementing a comprehensive national strategy to address wrecked, abandoned, and hazardous vessels (including small boats) that focuses on the prevention and removal of these problem vessels.”

The Act incorporates into Canadian law the Nairobi International Convention on the Removal of Wrecks (2007), which went into effect in April 2015. That convention created a uniform set of international rules to ensure the prompt and effective removal of wrecks located beyond a nation’s territorial waters. The new Canadian act goes beyond this convention in addressing what happens with vessels—and aircraft—within Canadian territory.

The Act makes abandoning a vessel and irresponsible vessel management illegal in Canada. The law makes it illegal for someone to allow a vessel to become a wreck by failing to maintain it, and for anyone in charge of a vessel “to knowingly cause it to sink or partially sink or to be stranded or grounded, including on the shore.”

There are already some measures in Canadian law to address wrecked or sunken vessels, because of the hazards they represent. If your powerboat sinks in the Trent-Severn Waterway, for example, the federal government can have it salvaged, and bill you the cost, because the vessel is interfering with a navigable waterway. And because vessels generally have on board environmentally hazardous materials like fuel, a sinking, deliberate and otherwise, triggers powers held by Environment and Climate Change Canada to investigate and if necessary lay charges.

What the new law provides is targeted measures to make vessel owners (both Canadian and foreign) more responsible for potential and actual hazards. The act gives the feds the power to order owners of vessels or wrecks to take measures to prevent, mitigate or eliminate hazards; to order owners to deal with dilapidated vessels located in Canadian waters; and to take the appropriate actions should the owner be unknown, unable or unwilling to respond. Among other things, the new law gives insurance claimants the right to recover their losses through direct action against the vessel owner’s insurer, and holds an owner liable for all costs incurred to address hazards posed by their vessel.

Much of the language of the new act (such as requiring owners of vessels of 300 gross tonnes and above to maintain insurance or some other financial security to cover potential wreck removal costs) is addressed at commercial shipping. Those measures are important for the safety and health of coastal communities, but there are additional dividends in giving federal authorities the legal tools to combat deliberate abandonment or scuttling of smaller commercial vessels and pleasure craft. In 2018, an aging commercial fishing boat was allegedly scuttled in Campbell River, B.C., prompting an investigation by Environment and Climate Change Canada.

During the 2008-09 financial crisis, American boat owners who could no longer afford loan payments or dockage fees were known to abandon their vessels, and scuttling as a means of disposal remains a contentious subject in the international recreational boating community. That problem may increase as fibreglass pleasure boats keep aging. With a shrinking resale market for older vessels, owners balking at disposal costs could be tempted to sink them or abandon them in coastal areas.

“Derelict and abandoned boats are an eyesore and a public safety issue so I applaud the government’s efforts to clean up the waterfront,” says Andrew Robertson, senior vice-president, Skipper’s Plan, a leading insurance service for recreational boaters at Arthur J. Gallagher Canada Ltd. in Toronto. At the same time, “I’m of the opinion that most boaters are responsible and don’t feel there is a significant risk of them abandoning their boat if the market goes soft. Any boat with an engine over 9.9 hp is required to be licensed and a paper trail of ownership exists with federal government.”

He feels the new legislation “is an opportunity to remind boat owners of their obligations and educate them on how to properly dispose of unwanted boats.” The challenge facing the boat industry is providing owners with options for disposing of them legally. Robertson says the industry needs to find ways “to recycle fibreglass boats in a financially viable business model.”

If a vessel remains afloat, abandonment won’t be a slam-dunk to prove under the new law. A vessel needs to be unattended for two years, and the onus is on the government to prove that it is in fact abandoned. But in the case of a more obvious act like scuttling, the feds can make their case well within that period. The law doesn’t apply in every case of sinking or abandonment. It won’t kick in when the abandonment is temporary and necessary to avert a danger to human life, or if the vessel is sunk with a permit to do so. It also will not apply to “government owned and operated vessels used for non-commercial purposes; and vessels on location being used for exploration, exploitation, or production of mineral resources.”


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