Locals express concerns over illegal boats in Watson Bayou

Published: Jun. 22, 2020 at 10:36 PM CDT
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Locals are sounding off on illegal activity in Watson Bayou.

“It’s been a problem since day one,” Watson Landings Marina owner and manager Mike Hobbs said.

“It’s a consistent problem that’s been occurring for many, many years,” Watson Bayou Marina owner Captain Nathan Lee Head said.

Captain Head said there are several boats anchored in the channel, and they’ve been there for months.

“[There are] a whole bunch of live-aboard boats out here and there’s nobody pumping them out. So they’re pumping their sewage directly into the bayou,” Captain Head said.

On Monday alone he counted eight illegally anchored boats in the channel.

FWC officials declined to speak on camera about the issue but in a statement they said, “A vessel may anchor almost anywhere, where it does not unreasonably or unnecessarily constitute a navigational hazard or interfere with another vessel.”

In this case, Hobbs said there is a navigational hazard because these boats aren’t properly lit.

“You could hit them out in here if you didn’t have a GPS radar when you’re coming in at night,” Hobbs said.

However, the boats aren’t the only problem. It’s also the people living on them.

“We’ve had drug dealing on boats out here,” Captain Head said.

Captain Head also said to get to and from their boats, people have to trespass on private property.

“We complained. All of our customers complained,” Hobbs said.

Panama City Commissioner Jenna Haligas took to Facebook to voice her concerns citing “illegally anchored boats” for contributing to drug arrests and needles on the shorelines.

“There are some boats that have been abandoned that people will go and end up squatting on,” Haligas said.

Haligas also said she has had several meetings with the FWC and city attorneys about possible new ordinances, but Watson Bayou is considered an intracoastal waterway.

“Even if we had city ordinances, we have no jurisdiction and we could not enforce it in an intracoastal waterway,” Haligas said.

Nonetheless, she knows the problem isn’t going away.

“I’m going to do my best to work with politicians higher than I am that might be able to help in any kind of legislation; I’m open to any ideas,” Haligas said.

The city of Panama City released this statement about the problem:

“The City of Panama City has been working with Florida Fish and Wildlife and Bay County to identify derelict, abandoned and at-risk vessels in our local waterways and identify funding to have them removed. Additionally, the City and its Police Department will work with FWC to monitor vessels anchored in our bayous to ensure the vessels have required safety equipment such as mooring lights. Citizens who have concerns about vessels or activity taking place along the bayous are encouraged to call the Panama City Police Department at (850) 872-3112. Citizens may also submit tips on the police department’s website,”

The FWC also answered the following questions via online statements.

What is the FWC doing to help this issue?

  • FWC has a well-organized derelict vessel program designed to assist in the investigation of derelict vessels along with local Sheriff’s Offices and municipal law enforcement agencies sharing jurisdiction within the same waterbody. The FWC, Sheriff’s and municipal law enforcement also have the ability to issue non-criminal infractions for vessels at risk of becoming derelict on the public waters of the state.

How can someone report a transient staying on an abandoned boat?

  • The public can contact FWC dispatch at 888-404-FWCC (3922) if they suspect any illegal activity. They may also contact the local police department and sheriff’s office to report any suspected illegal activity.

Is the FWC working with Panama City to address these problems?

  • The FWC works closely with local law enforcement to address reports of illegal activity in and around Watson Bayou.

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