Just a few miles outside of Venice, Italy, is a marsh full of abandoned boats that are harming the fragile ecosystems of the Venetian Lagoon. The idyllic canals and tourism centers of Venice get most of the world’s attention for obvious reasons, but the city’s wetlands have been often overlooked until now, thanks to the work of volunteers hunting for so-called “Ghost Boats” in the Venetian wetlands, as the Guardian reports.
These vessels found in the lagoon’s watery graveyards are called ghost boats by local non-profit groups since they’re practically impossible to trace back to owners who discarded them. Work is underway to find and remove as many of these boats as possible, but the process is mired in bureaucracy.
People have been illegally dumping boats in the Venetian Lagoon since the 1950s, when the dangers of microplastics and other chemical pollutants weren’t exactly well-known. Fast forward seventy-odd years, and the region has amassed a collection of over 2,000 abandoned boats, as the Guardian explains:
For decades, the Venetian lagoon – the largest wetland in the Mediterranean – has been used as a landfill by people wanting to get rid of their boats. An estimated 2,000 abandoned vessels are in the lagoon, scattered over an area of about 55,000 hectares (135,900 acres). Some lie beneath the surface, others poke above the water and some are stranded on the barene – the lowlands that often disappear at high tide.
The practice reportedly dates back to local businesses replacing old transport boats with commercial trucks, but people continued disposing of their boats there due to the difficulty and cost of properly discarding unserviceable boats.
The Guardian says Venice has historically lacked the infrastructure to deal with all its unwanted boats, so people just dump them. And given the shared ownership of the wetlands (between 26 separate legal parties) it’s hard to crack down on illegal dumping. Police are reportedly powerless to intervene or remove a boat because it’s out of their jurisdiction; local officials have even tried asking the authorities to open a dedicated site for boat disposal to no avail.
Despite the boat carcasses posing a threat to other vessels, which can easily be damaged if they pass over wrecks, there’s a greater environmental threat to the lagoon.
The wetlands have already been damaged by the Venetian tourism industry to begin with, but the hulls of many ghost boats are fiberglass. As the material decomposes, it releases microplastics into the water. Other risks come from paint and upholstery fabric used in the old boats releasing toxic chemicals such as tributyltin.
That’s why community organizations and other activists such as the non-profit group Venice Lagoon Plastic Free have been mapping out the abandoned boats and pressuring local officials to remove them. With the help of sponsors, VLPF developed an app to catalog the location and specifics of the ghost boats. The group hopes the app will serve as a guide for Venetian authorities to come and remove the boats, but it could also help understand the environmental impact these boats have had on the lagoon — which is home to just a couple thousand of the estimated 3 million shipwrecks and vessels left to rot around the world.