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Last week, Southwest Florida felt the wrath of Hurricane Ian. With the surplus of vessels around the Southwest Florida area, property owners are finding vessels washed up on their properties or left abandoned in the waters around them. This spurs the question,

“What do I do if a vessel is on my property due to Hurricane Ian?

First, a property owner can always attempt to locate the registration number on the vessel’s side to ascertain who the owner is. Once the owner is determined, the property owner can demand the vessel’s rightful owner remove the vessel from the property.

Additionally, a property owner can report the vessel to Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC). FWC will collect a fee for beginning an investigation, conduct an investigation under Section 705.103, Florida Statutes, and determine the vessel’s owner. If the vessel’s owner does not remove the vessel, it could be declared “derelict” by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. In Florida, a vessel is considered derelict when it is left stored or abandoned in a wrecked, junked or demolished condition on public waters or private property without the consent of the property owner.

Likewise, “abandoned property” means all tangible personal property that does not have an identifiable owner and that has been disposed on public property in a wrecked, inoperative, or partially dismantled condition or has no apparent intrinsic value to the rightful owner. The term includes derelict vessels as defined in Fla. Stat. 823.11(1).

Any investigation into derelict or abandoned property is the primary responsibility of the FWC, and removal is coordinated as a regional effort by the West Coast Inland Navigation District (WCIND).

Every effort is made to contact the last known registered owner and hold the responsible parties accountable before expending any public funds for removal. However, if they cannot find the owner and have the owner remove the vessel, it is turned over to WCIND contractors for removal.

Vessel Salvage Rights

Florida does not have vessel salvage rights laws. Basically, this means you cannot simply claim ownership of a vessel that has been abandoned. Doing so is considered theft under Florida law and could result in fines or even potential jail time. If you want to claim rights to a vessel that has been abandoned or left derelict, you must follow the abandoned vessel salvage laws of Florida, contained under Section 705.103 of the Florida Statutes. This law lays out the process for how to claim an abandoned vessel in Florida.

Can I claim rights to the vessel that is either on my property or in the waters near my property?

If you find an abandoned or derelict vessel, the first step you must take is to report it to law enforcement. Next, an investigation will occur for which you will be charged a fee. This fee typically runs between $300 and $600, depending on the individual circumstances of the case. Understand that the investigation process can take between 45 and 120 days, sometimes longer. If the vessel is claimed by its original owner during the investigation, unfortunately, you are out of luck.

However, if the owner does not come forward, law enforcement may decide to allow you to claim the vessel. If this is the case, you will be presented with an Abandoned Property Certificate FWCDLE-003. Using this document, you should apply for the vessel’s title at the Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles. This is the final step in the process. Once the vessel’s title has been passed to you, it’s your responsibility. You must care for the vessel. If you abandon the vessel or leave it derelict at this time, you will be legally responsible and penalized accordingly.

What happens if I get title and then can’t remove the vessel or bring it into legal compliance?

Once title has been transferred into your name, you become legally responsible for the vessel. If its condition were to become derelict, then you would be held responsible. Derelict vessel owners can face both civil and criminal penalties which may include jail.

If you should have any questions or concerns regarding abandoned vessels or salvaging an abandoned vessel and their requirements, please feel free to contact us by email at (239-344-1249) and (239-344-1105).