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The Abandoned Boats of Venice

The Venetian Lagoon is home to more than 2000 abandoned boats, creating a problem for locals and putting a blight on the Mediterranean's biggest wetland

There's no European city more closely intertwined with boating than Venice, Italy. It's the world's most famous floating city and its historical significance can't be undersold.

Not only is it a destination that attracts tourists from across the globe, it also has a charm and mystique that's hard to put into words. There's a reason the idea of floating down a Venice canal in a gondola while being serenaded is such a part of pop culture.

That being said, anything as old as Venice is bound to have some age-related issues. While the city has no conclusive founding date, historians have traced back family lineages to 400 AD, although there's evidence of fishing settlements from around 0 AD. That leaves roughly 2000 years of boats and debris to be accounted for, and sadly some of that detritus is accumulating in the nearby Venetian Lagoon.

The city of Venice is comprised of 118 small islands separated by canals and connected by over 400 bridges. The Lagoon is situated on the southeast side of the city and covers a massive 550 square kilometres (212 square miles). When one travels through the lagoon, it's a jarring difference compared to the bustling city -- secluded grasslands, wildlife, and silence permeate the area rather than the sounds of traffic, music, and urban activity.

But within the massive natural labyrinth inside the lagoon are some 2000 decrepit and abandoned boats, both above and below the water. The problem has gotten so bad, in fact, that environmentalists are ramping up efforts to clean up one of the world's most beautiful wetlands.

In an interview with The Guardian, Giovanni Cecconi, the president of Venice Resilience Lab, an environmental group responsible for mapping the lagoon, said: “In the past, the large shipping companies abandoned the burci here, creating boat cemeteries."

"There are boats that have been abandoned for 20 or 30 years that are in very bad condition,” said Davide Poletto, executive director of the Venice Lagoon Plastic Free organization.

Paolo Cuman, the coordinator of the Consulta della Laguna Media, a grassroots group trying to revive the lagoon, says the problem has become too big to ignore.

“See this fishing boat? I remember when it used to bring the fish to Mestre [his neighbourhood] 40 years ago! Looks like it has been discarded for three decades at least,” he told The Guardian.

The trend of abandoning vessels in the lagoon began around the 1950s, when trucks began replacing boats as the commercial vehicle of choice. Of the 2000 estimated boats believed to be strewn about, some are resting safely below the surface while others have their bow or stern jutting precariously out of the water. There's also the effect of the tides, where some boats disappear and reappear throughout the day, while some are stranded on what's down as the barene -- the lowlands that are only visible during low tide.

There's also the environmental impact of decaying boats-- leaking chemicals like oil and fuel, fibreglass and other construction components, and plastic contamination from various items onboard. Things like anti-fouling paint present a huge concern due to their toxicity leaking into the surrounding ecosystem.

So, what can be done? Reporting the abandoned vessels for removal rarely works as the wheels of the bureaucracy turn too slowly. In other countries, national government programs have been put in place to urge boat owners to surrender their boats rather than abandon them. In Canada, both Ontario and B.C., the two biggest 'boating provinces' have launched their own abandoned boats program. In the U.S., the Recovering Derelict Vessels program in Washington state has removed over 900 abandoned boats from its rivers since the program began in 2002. The state of Virginia recently began the Clean Virginia Waterways program to measure the environmental impact and coordinate removal efforts.

As for the Venice Lagoon, as the Mediterranean's largest wetland it has the problematic distinction of being controlled by multiple different entities -- everything from local government, to local and federal police, to environmental groups, and beyond. That means determining who has a role in the cleanup is far from simple.

Most advocacy groups believe removing the vessels is the right course of action, regardless of the collateral damage during the process. The short-term damage to the marshland will be less impactful than the long-term risk of constant contamination.

The movement is starting to gain some steam. According to The Guardian, the local authority responsible for water management has agreed to begin removing some vessels.

For Paolo Cuman, the coordinator of the Consulta della Laguna Media and a local himself, “If I convince others in this community to join me, then there will be a Venetian patrolling every spot of the lagoon. Ignoring us will become impossible.”

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