Derelict vessel Derelict vessel

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Solving the problem of derelict vessels

The issues surrounding derelict vessels are a growing concern for many ports and local authorities. We consider the risks associated with derelict vessels, and what can be done.

A derelict vessel is any abandoned ship or craft that has since become a nuisance, either through neglect, full or partial submergence, drifting or grounding. Such vessels can impact the safety of navigation, public health and the environment (including visually), so require management.

As the number of derelict vessels continues to increase, there is rising pressure on authorities to respond. In this article we explore the issues associated with derelict vessels and outline our thoughts on improving their management.

The issues associated with derelict vessels

Drifting vessels and debris present a high risk due to their unpredictable movements and locations. If a derelict vessel breaks apart, its debris can become a hazard to other vessels in the area, which risk colliding with the debris potentially causing damage, grounding or stranding.

Submerged vessels are also a significant concern; although their location may be known they can be difficult to detect, shift during high tides and have trailing lines or nets that can become caught in passing vessel.

Risk to the environment

As a derelict vessel breaks apart, smaller sections and components pose a variety of negative impacts on the environment.

Hazardous substances may leak from internal holds or leach from materials, to accumulate in sediment, intertidal water and the water column. For example, flaking paint can contain copper and other compounds that are toxic to marine life.

Vessels built since the 1960s - especially small, private vessels - are commonly made with synthetic, composite materials not designed for recycling, so have high disposal costs. Due to these costs, an owner is more likely to abandon the vessel once it becomes unseaworthy.

Plastic and fibre debris can smother or crush infaunal and epifaunal species, while seabirds, fish and invertebrates can ingest smaller elements, bringing the material into the food chain.

Risk to public health

Members of the public accessing derelict vessels risk serious injury. For example, the lack of lighting, poor vessel integrity and unmoored equipment can result in cuts, falls, slips, trips, pinning or entrapment.

Some risks to the marine environment by derelict vessels can equally apply to the public; for example, harm caused when exposed to certain substances left aboard, such as oils, refrigerants, batteries and cleaning products.

Risk to visual amenity

Derelict vessels in the intertidal environment are in general an eyesore and can be detrimental to landscape/seascape value and amenity, potentially impacting tourism and local economy, or impeding access to privately owned facilities, or public access to the foreshore and water.


The main reasons vessels become derelict, according to research, is end-of-life disposal cost and the lack of incentive for owners to dispose of vessels responsibly, given their anonymity.

Removal of the vessel and associated debris is the only way to fully mitigate the issues associated with them. This requires an authority to take direct responsibility and liability over the vessel and its management.

There is also currently no clear guidance in the UK that provides determining factors for removal, nor clear definitions of dereliction, seaworthiness, marine waste, etc. This means that both port and local authorities must find solutions for their removal at their own expense, with limited opportunity for reimbursement. The diagram below shows the process for removing a derelict vessel or debris under current UK legislation.


General derelict vessels removal process

Ways forward

The difficulties faced identifying and removing derelict vessels, and the financial outlay involved, has traditionally led to reactive management. With increasing pressures and costs, the adoption of a proactive approach would provide efficiency, safety and cost savings in the longer term.

Work recently undertaken by ABPmer considered the issue of derelict vessels and developed a methodology for both their management and removal. We identified definitions and terminology, discusses impacts, assesses legislation and the powers available to local authorities and suggests management recommendations.

Our conclusion was that solving the problem of derelict vessels not only requires removal of the vessels themselves, but also managing what drives abandonment in the first place.

We see the future direction for the management of derelict vessels as a combined approach between local and port authorities. This will require determining the legal powers available and agreeing cross boundary partnerships, including terms of their use and methods to identify, monitor and manage risks.

We also see the need for more strategic action. Better lifecycle management of small and private vessels could lead to their sustainable and affordable disposal. An overarching national framework would provide uniform standards, definitions and guidance, along with a potential funding mechanism to support local action. Until then, ports and other authorities are reliant on their own powers and purse.

Prepared by Will Fellows, Maritime Specialist

ABPmer’s maritime specialists are experienced in providing clients with working solutions regarding port and marine activities. Learn more about our maritime services.