Boating and the Environment

Responsible boaters understand that every time they place a boat in the water, they risk polluting the marine environment. Keep the waters clean by following both the federal and state laws that are in place to protect the environment.

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

It is against federal law to pollute the waterways. 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. The rules are the same for all boat types and depend on how far your boat is from shore:

Chart of littering laws in the United States

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. All boats with fuel-powered engines are required to keep oils or toxic waste on board the boat and the operator must keep the hazardous waste in a fixed or portable container until it can be disposed of at a proper reception facility. Oil discharge can build up easily in the bilge of a boat and can be discharged into the water just as easily. Always handle hazardous substances with extreme care.

Protecting the Marine Environment

To safely contain hazardous substances, you must have one of the following devices on board:

  • 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

You must report 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 and be prepared to report the following information to the National Response Centre:

Fuel spilling into the waterway

  • 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 you’re found guilty of discharging toxic substances from your boat, you may face a civil penalty of up to $125,000. Additionally, if you fail to notify the Coast Guard of an illegal discharge, you may face criminal penalties, including a prison sentence of up to five years.


Information Placards and Waste Management Plans

Depending on the length of your boat, you may be required to display the following signage on board:

Oil Placard:

Boats over 26 feet in length that are operating on federal waters must have an Oil Placard on display. This placard must be in a visible location so that passengers can reference it for 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 upon or into any navigable waters of the U.S. This prohibition includes any discharge that causes a film or discoloration of the surface of the water, or causes a sludge or emulsion beneath the surface of the water. Violators are subject to substantial civil and/or criminal sanctions, including fines and imprisonment.’

Garbage Disposal Placard:

If your boat is over 26 feet in length and you’re operating 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:

If your boat is over 40 feet in length, it has sleeping and/or cooking compartments and it’s meant to be operated more than 3 miles away from shore, it will also require a Waste Management Plan. This document must be written, made visible and put into action by the boat captain. The information on the waste management plan must include:

  • The boat’s name and port.
  • The procedure for the disposal of food waste.
  • The procedure for the disposal of cans, bottles and plastics.
  • The procedure for the disposal of sewage and other dangerous substances.

Download a free BOATsmart! Waste Management Plan here!


Human Waste Disposal for Boaters

Some recreational boats will have an installed toilet on board for its convenience during long boating trips. However, understand that it’s illegal to allow raw sewage to escape into territorial U.S. waterways (when you’re boating within 3 miles from shore).

Marine sanitation device types

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:

Chart of Marine Sanitation Devices by boat type


A ‘No Discharge Zone’ could be a land-locked waterway, a drinking water intake area or a marine habitat that’s environmentally fragile. In these areas, Type I and Type II MSDs (the types that discharge treated waste into the water) must not be used and must be secured to prevent accidental release.

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.

Sign indicating a designated pump out station for boats



Aquatic Nuisance Species

American waterways have been under threat from foreign aquatic plants, fish and invertebrates. Aquatic Nuisance Species (ANS) are transferred from boats and boating equipment that originate from external waterways. Once introduced to a new waterway, the ANS will detach from the contaminated boat and spread like wildfire. ANS include: Milfoil, Zebra Mussels and Quagga Mussels.

Waterway full of aquatic nuisance species

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

Removing aquatic nuisance species from your boat

How to Prevent the Spread of Aquatic Nuisance Species:

Step 1) Rinse your boat with environmentally friendly soap and hot tap water (at least 104°F).

Step 2) Spray your boat with high-pressure water (250 psi).

Step 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.

Step 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.

Step 5) Dry your boat and equipment before moving it to another body of water.

For more information on Aquatic Nuisance Species, visit: