Submitted by Washington Sea Grant

With summer here it is more important than ever for boaters to understand the vital role they play as ambassadors keeping Washington’s waterways safe and clean. Two major hazards boaters produce are oil and trash, but few boaters know what to do when they have a small oil spill on their boat or when they encounter marine debris.

Surprisingly, small oil spills, such as those from oily bilge discharges, account for up to 75 percent of the oil in Puget Sound. Marine debris, ranging from microplastics to derelict boats are often a threat to safe boating and water quality. Most obviously, marine debris can be a major navigational hazard for boaters. Less obvious, but just as harmful are oil and microplastics that can and do make their way into the seafood we eat. Luckily, there is plenty boaters can do to prevent these hazards.

Marine Debris

The majority of marine debris is composed of small plastics. These can be anything from cigarette butts to food wrappers and fishing line. Plastics are exposed to tidal action and solar radiation, where they break down into smaller and smaller pieces, making them both harder for collection and easier for wildlife to accidentally consume.

  • Don’t bring it. The best way to prevent trash from entering our waterways is to not bring it in the first place. Try to replace single-use plastic products and containers with reusable metal. This can be as simple as bringing a metal water bottle instead of a case of plastic bottles.
  • Make a waste management plan for your boat before you go out on the water. Ask these questions: Where are the waste receptacles on your boat? Do they have a secure lid? Are they secure in case of wind or rough weather? Who is responsible for emptying them? Answering these questions before you go out on the water can make a big difference
  • If a piece of trash does go overboard, take it seriously. Commit to retrieving whatever waste was lost, and consider picking up a couple pieces of trash you see that aren’t yours. It only takes a little effort to leave our waterways better than you found them.
  • Some debris is too big or hazardous to pick up as a boater. If you encounter hazardous waste, like chemical spills or biohazards, or see large debris, which might prove a navigational hazard, such as derelict vessels or abandoned fishing equipment, don’t attempt to clean them up. Instead, report it to the Department of Ecology Environmental Report Tracking System for environmental hazards or DNR’s Derelict and Abandoned Reporting Tool (DART) for abandoned vessels. If you are unsure who to call, use the U.S. Coast Guard National Response Center at 800-424-8802.
  • If any debris poses an immediate threat to you or other boaters, hail the Coast Guard on VHF Ch 16.

Oil Spills

Small oil spills may seem like only a drop in the proverbial bucket, but they add up. Between 2011 and 2015, recreational vessels reported spills amounting to almost 6,000 gallons, and many go unreported. Often these spills are under a gallon and can be hard to spot and track. So how can boaters make sure they don’t pollute the waters they enjoy?

  • Prevent oil from entering the water system: place a spill prevention pad or bilge pillow in the bilge before you leave the dock. These are small absorbent pads that, when placed alongside the bilge pump, prevent oily discharge from entering the water. Pick up a spills prevention kit through Washington Sea Grant or your local marina.
  • Checking engines and performing regular maintenance can also have a big impact. Periodically check that all bolts are tight and pumps and lines are uncracked.
  • If you do spill, or you see a spill, report it to the Washington Emergency Management Division at 1-800-258-5990 or the U.S. Coast Guard National Response Center at 800-424-8802.

Washington Sea Grant, in partnership with the Department of Ecology and NOAA, work with boaters to reduce their impact through the Clean Marina initiative. For more information visit the Washington Sea Grant website or contact Aaron Barnett, at 206-853-6991 or

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