Boats are like cars—using and maintaining them can have an impact on the environment. Fuel spills, oil leaks, detergents, and boat sewage discharges all can pollute the water. Boating in sensitive and shallow areas can also harm delicate habitats if not done with care. Boaters must also keep a lookout and adhere to speed limits to prevent collisions with whales, sea turtles, and other marine animals. With minimal effort and expense you can help keep our coastal waters clean and healthy—a key ingredient for great boating. Many websites provide useful tips for minimizing boating impacts, including Clean Boating in the Commonwealth, an article on page 52 of the Massachusetts Office of Coastal Zone Management (CZM) 2007 Coastlines (PDF, 38 MB) magazine. The following information gives specific steps for handling fuel and oil, sewage and graywater, boat cleaning and maintenance, boating in sensitive areas, marine debris, and invasive species, along with links to additional information.
Fuel and Oil
While large spills of oil and gasoline are rare, the small drips from regular boating activities can add up. This oil and gasoline degrades marine water quality and is toxic to humans and marine life. These simple steps can help you keep oil and fuel out of the water.
- Refuel carefully - Always use an oil absorbent cloth or pad when fueling to catch small drips, particularly when you remove the fuel nozzle from the boat's fuel line. Also, do not top off the fuel tank—fuel expands in the heat, causing tanks to leak if too full. The BoatU.S. Foundation's Fueling Basics web page provides details to ensure drip-free fueling. If you do spill, report it to facility staff. Do not use soap to break up or disperse the spill. It increases harm to the environment and is illegal.
- Keep a clean bilge - Maintaining your engine will reduce oil and fuel leaks and help prevent oily bilge water from being released overboard. As added protection, place an oil absorbent pad/sock in the bilge to capture oily waste. See CZM's Bilge Sock web page for details.
- Reduce fuel use - Increasing your fuel efficiency saves you time with fewer trips to the fuel dock, saves money through using less fuel, and saves the environment too. The BoatU.S. Foundation's Fuel Efficiency web page provides tips to get the most out of each fill up—from finding the sweet spot where your boat rides smooth to using the appropriate propeller.
Sewage and Graywater
Boat sewage can contain bacteria and viruses, nutrients, and chemicals—and graywater left over from dishwashing and showering can contain soaps, detergents, and other materials—all of which can be harmful to water quality and public health. These simple practices can help manage sewage and graywater.
- Use pumpouts - Pumpout facilities provide a convenient way to properly dispose of boat sewage. And all of the Massachusetts coastline is a No Discharge Zone (NDZ) for boat sewage—making pumpout use mandatory. There are more than 120 pumpout facilities coastwide, and many of them are pumpout boats that can come directly to your boat at your convenience. For a complete list pumpouts in coastal Massachusetts, see CZM's No Discharge Zones website. Also, use shoreside restrooms when possible to reduce your pumpout needs.
- Reduce graywater impacts - Do your dishwashing and showering at shoreside facilities to reduce discharges of graywater (non-sewage wastewater). If you must wash on board, use a phosphate-free biodegradable soap. In Massachusetts, Nantucket has taken steps to reduce graywater impacts by prohibiting discharges from dishwashers and washing machines into Nantucket waters. See the Nantucket Boat Basin's rules on graywater.
Boat Cleaning and Maintenance
One of the best ways to keep pollutants out of the water is to save maintenance projects for the boatyard, where it is much easier to collect waste. If work must be done in the water, do all you can to contain and catch drips and debris for proper disposal.
- Spill-proof oil changes - Use an oil change pump to transfer oil from the engine to a spill-proof container. Wrap the oil filter in plastic bag before removing. Properly dispose of all used oil and oil filters. Ask marina staff for instructions or see the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection's Safely Manage Hazardous Household Products web page.
- Manage bottom paints better - Minimize the release of pollutants by choosing a hard, less toxic, or nontoxic bottom paint. Remember to use only non-abrasive methods and no underwater cleaning if your boat has soft, ablative paint. Check out the University of California's Sea Grant Extension Program's Nontoxic Antifouling Strategies booklet for detailed information. You can avoid the need for bottom paint altogether by using a dry storage marina or trailering your vessel.
- Practice green cleaning - Regularly scrub and wash down your boat with fresh water to reduce need for cleaners and if needed, use greener boat-cleaning products. See CZM's Get Your Home Squeaky Green-Clean for tips on eco-friendly cleaning.
Boating in Sensitive Areas
Boats allow us to explore places not accessible on foot, such as salt marshes and shallow flats, but improper boating practices can cause environmental harm. Boating in shallow waters can do severe damage to eelgrass beds, which are the nursing grounds for many important fish species. Salt marshes, which provide flood control and critical habitat for fish, migratory birds, and other wildlife, are also susceptible to vessel traffic. These low-energy environments are particularly susceptible to erosion from waves created by boat wakes. Chapter 4 of the Massachusetts Clean Marina Guide (PDF, 216 KB) gives specifics on how to minimize your impacts to sensitive coastal areas. In particular, please remember to:
- Observe "no wake" zones - Lower speeds are required for a reason—for safety and to protect sensitive shorelines.
- Avoid boating in shallow waters - If you can't avoid eelgrass beds, then reduce speeds! Also, do not anchor in eelgrass beds.
Protecting Whales, Sea Turtles, and Other Marine Animals
Whales, sea turtles, and other marine mammals—including several threatened and endangered species—migrate through Massachusetts waters. These animals and can be harmed by collisions with boats or entanglement with fishing gear and other marine debris. Keep a lookout and adhere to boat speed limits to help protect these marine animals, as well as your passengers.
- Check out the rules - See the Massachusetts Environmental Police's Massachusetts Boater Safety Handbook for information about safe and responsible boating around marine animals.
- Know the hotspots—Get the app! - Download the Whale Alert app on your smartphone or tablet and check out the whale hotspots before you head out. The app uses verified sightings, acoustic detections from buoys and gliders, and aerial surveys to display whale location data on a nautical chart.
- Report whale sitings - Submit your own whale sightings through Whale Alert app (which will be verified by the Whale App team before being posting in near-real time). This helps inform speed zones, warnings, and other measures to reduce lethal ship strikes of whales and keep mariners safe.
- Report entangled turtles - If you come across an entangled sea turtle at sea, turn off the boat's engine and observe the animal from a distance. Then call the Marine Animal Entanglement Hotline (800-900-3622), the NOAA Northeast Marine Mammal and Sea Turtle Stranding and Entanglement Hotline (866-755-6622), or the U.S. Coast Guard on VHF channel 16 and wait for responders to arrive.
Trash and discarded materials, known as marine debris, can have a large impact on boating and marine life. Plastic bags can clog engine intakes, causing overheating and expensive repairs. Fishing line can get wrapped around a propeller, disabling the boat. Marine life can mistake debris for food, and fishing line, six pack holders, and other garbage can entangle animals. Use the following tips to help reduce marine debris:
- Stow that trash - Keep your trash on board. Never throw cigarette butts, fishing line, or any other garbage into the ocean. Take advantage of shoreside recycling containers. The BoatU.S. Foundation's Trash and Marine Debris web page provides more information.
- Recycle fishing line - Join the BoatU.S. Foundation's Reel In and Recycle program to install and maintain monofilament recycling stations at a fishing spot near you.
- Join a cleanup - Organize a COASTSWEEP cleanup at your marina or local beach and be part of this statewide event to remove marine debris from our shores.
Invasive species are plants (such as Codium [PDF, 306 KB] seaweed) and animals (such as the European green crab [PDF, 354 KB]) that have become established in a new location and can harm the ecosystem or economy of the invaded area. Boating can be a source of these introductions when organisms become attached to the hull, entangled in motors, are drawn into the bilge water, or otherwise "hitchhike" on a vessel from one water body to another. Bait is another potential source of introductions. To help stop the spread of invasive species while boating:
- Remove plant debris - Remember to remove any plants from your boat when you take it out of the water and dispose of the plant debris in the trash.
- Prevent hitchhikers - Inspect your hull and remove any attached organisms.
- Keep that bait - Never release unused bait or bait packing materials into the water.
- For more AIS information see:
- Attention Boaters: Stop the Spread of Invasive Species (PDF, 349 KB) - A pamphlet for boat owners produced by CZM and the Department of Conservation and Recreation.
- Stop Aquatic Hitchhikers! - A website of the Aquatic Nuisance Species Task Force.
- CZ-Tip - Learn to Spot, and Deal with, the Aliens in Our Midst - This web page discusses steps that citizens can take to reduce the spread of invasive species, with specifics for boaters.
Here are a few additional resources to explore.
- CZM's Massachusetts Clean Marina Guide provides a set of practices for operators of marinas and boatyards. The Boater Fact Sheets (PDF, 99 KB) in the guide were developed specifically for boaters and have detailed information on: boat operation and fueling; hazardous waste and trash disposal; bilge water, graywater, and boat sewage; boat cleaning and hull/engine maintenance; and non-toxic cleaning alternatives.
- The Massachusetts Environmental Police have published Boat Massachusetts—Your Guide to Boating Laws and Responsibilities, which provides boating rules and regulations, including environmental restrictions.
- State and nationally approved boater training is available through the Massachusetts Environmental Police, U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary, U.S. Power Squadron, and several other organizations.
- Both the BoatU.S. Foundation and the California Division of Boating and Waterways have excellent websites with tips for clean boating (some of which were borrowed for this web page).
- The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Office of Response and Restoration provides additional clean boating tips in its What Can You Do to Prevent Marine Pollution? blog piece.