Boating and the Environment

Responsible boaters know that they risk polluting the marine environment. For this reason, it’s important that boaters follow both the federal and state laws that are in place to protect the marine environment and keep the waters clean.


Unfortunately, the amount of garbage in U.S. waterways is increasing. Floating garbage damages your boat and is extremely harmful to the species living in the marine environment.


It is against federal law to pollute the waterways. As a result, the minimum consequence for polluting is a fine and, in some states, imprisonment.



Litter Laws for Boaters

Federal law prohibits the release of waste matter of any kind into U.S. waters. This includes trash, garbage, oil and other liquid pollutants. In addition, these rules apply to all boat types and depend on how far your boat is from shore.

Note: It’s ALWAYS illegal to dump plastic into the water.



The Disposal of Toxic Substances

The Federal Water Pollution Control Act prohibits the discharge of oil or hazardous substances into U.S. waterways. As a result, all boats with fuel-powered engines must keep oils or toxic waste on board the boat. The operator must keep the hazardous waste in a fixed or portable container, and it must be disposed of at a proper reception facility. Oil discharge builds up easily in the bilge of a boat and subsequently discharge into the water. Therefore, always handle hazardous substances with extreme care.

Have one of the following devices on board to safely contain hazardous substances and prevent them from spilling into the marine environment.

  • A bucket or;
  • Oil absorbent pads or;
  • A heavy-duty plastic bag or;
  • A bailer or portable pump.



Reporting Spills and the Illegal Discharge of Waste

Boaters must report to the authorities if a pollutant (such as oil or hazardous cleaning products) is released from your boat into the water. Call the U.S. Coast Guard toll-free at 1-800-424-8802. Be prepared to report the following information to the National Response Centre:


  • The location of the release
  • The source and cause of the release (if one is known)
  • The amount of waste released (an estimate)
  • A description of the waste (color, odor, consistency, etc.)
  • The actual substance that was released (if known)
  • The date and time of the release

Penalties for the Improper Disposal of Toxic Substances

If found guilty of discharging toxic substances from your boat, you may face a civil penalty of up to $125,000. Additionally, failing to notify the Coast Guard of an illegal discharge, you may face criminal penalties. This could include a prison sentence of up to five years.



The length of your boat may require you to display the following signage on board:

Oil Placard

Boats over 26 feet in length that operate on federal waters must have an Oil Placard on display. Additionally, the placard must be visible for passengers to reference the oil discharge laws. The Oil Placard must be at least 5×8 inches in size and must display the following message:


‘Discharge of Oil Prohibited’


The Federal Water Pollution Control Act prohibits the discharge of oil or oily waste in any navigable waters of the U.S. This prohibition includes any discharge that causes a film or discolouration to the surface of the water. Additionally, it includes any discharge that causes a sludge or emulsion under the surface of the water. Violators are subject to civil and criminal sanctions, including fines and imprisonment.’


Garbage Disposal Placard

If your boat is over 26 feet in length and operates on federal waters, you must also display a Garbage Disposal Placard or ‘Save Our Seas’ placard. These placards must be at least 4×9 inches in size and describe the rules for discarding waste offshore.


Waste Management Plan

Your boat requires a Waste Management Plan if it is:

  • over 40 feet in length
  • has sleeping and/or cooking compartments and
  • meant to be operated more than 3 miles away from shore

The information on the waste management plan must include the boat’s name and port as well as the procedures for the disposal of:

  • food waste
  • cans, bottles and plastics
  • sewage and other dangerous substances



Some recreational boats may have a toilet installed on board. However, understand that it’s illegal for raw sewage to escape into territorial U.S. waterways when you’re boating within 3 miles from shore.

The Clean Water Act requires all boats with installed toilets to be equipped with a Coast Guard-approved Marine Sanitation Device (MSD). An MSD is a system that’s designed to retain, treat and/or release sewage from recreational boats.


Note: Swimmers can catch serious bacterial infections if they are exposed to raw sewage. 


MSD Types



‘No Discharge Zones’ include land-locked waterways, drinking intake areas, and an environmental fragile marine habitat.


In these areas, Type I and Type II MSDs must not be used. Furthermore, they must be secured to prevent accidental release. Type I and Type II MSDs are the types that discharge treated waste into the water.


How to secure your MSD:


  • Padlock the overboard discharge valves in the closed position.
  • Close the overboard discharge valves and remove the handle.
  • Lock the door to the space where the toilet is kept.

Identifying Pump-Out Stations


If a marina has a Pump-Out Facility for your MSD, there will be a clearly visible sign to identify the Pump-Out Station.


Aquatic Nuisance Species

The American marine environment is under threat from foreign aquatic plants, fish and invertebrates.


Aquatic Nuisance Species (ANS) are transferred to waterways from boats or boating equipment that originate from external waterways. The ANS will detach from the contaminated boat or equipment once it is introduced to a new waterway, causing them to spread. ANS include Milfoil, Zebra Mussels and Quagga Mussels.



Why are ANS such a serious threat?

  • They have no natural predators in U.S. waters
  • Some ANS can actually survive out of water, making transfer easy
  • They reproduce quickly
  • They have harmful effects on the native wildlife, habitats and ecosystems

How do I prevent the spread of ANS?

  1. Rinse your boat with environmentally friendly soap and hot tap water (at least 104°F).
  2. Spray your boat with high-pressure water (250 psi).
  3. Feel the hull for gritty surfaces. Rub down these areas with towels, spray again with hot water and dispose of the towels in the garbage.
  4. Clean anchors, live wells, buckets and other items that were in the water or held water. Do this away from the shoreline and never release live bait from one body of water to another.
  5. Dry your boat and equipment before moving it to another body of water.

For more information on Aquatic Nuisance Species, visit: