Fish, shellfish, seabirds and other forms of aquatic life require a balance of nutrients, oxygen and clean water to survive. Even small quantities of toxic products in the water can disrupt this balance, with lasting harmful effects.

The volume of hydrocarbon and oil pollution entering North America’s waters every year from recreational boating is estimated to be more than 15 times the amount of the Exxon Valdez spill (up to one billion litres per year).

An estimated 30 percent of all fuel and oil used in two-stroke engines ends up in the water. We can reduce these threats to the ecosystems by careful attention to routine boat maintenance and use.

Earth-Friendly Boat Maintenance

Here are some tips which can help ease the environmental impact of routine boat maintenance:

Keep a Supply of Oil-Absorbent Rags on Board

Even small spills of oil can contaminate a large volume of water. Keeping a supply of these rags handy for cleaning up of oil and fuel will help keep more of these substances out of the water.

Properly Dispose of Used Oil and Filters

Facilities are available to handle these elements which are toxic to the marine environment. In the US call 1 800 CLEANUP, and in Canada call 1 800-667-4321 for the nearest disposal facility.

Keep Used Solvents Separate from Used Oil

Never mix wastes, or pour hazardous wastes down drains, on the ground or into surface waters.

Wax Your Boat

A good coat of wax on a fiberglass hull prevents surface dirt from becoming engrained. This will reduce the need for detergents when you wash your boat. Pollen, dust, spores, or salt occur naturally and will do no harm when they are washed into the water.

Wash Topsides Only

Limit dock side hull cleaning to the above water surface area only — from the boot stripe up. Use a sponge to effectively remove light growth without creating the clouds of heavy metals usually caused by scrubbing. Rinse your boat with fresh water.

Use Non-Toxic Cleaners

Many cleaning products contain phosphates and other chemicals that are toxic to aquatic ecosystems. Before using products with hazardous warning labels, such as skull and crossbones, try a natural cleaner like vinegar. Examples:

  • Fiberglass Stains: Make a paste of baking soda and water. Use a sponge or soft cloth and gently rub the mix into the stain. This paste can also be used to clean onboard showers and heads. While baking soda is an excellent all-around cleaner, keep in mind that it is abrasive, so use with care. Use lemon or lime juice as a final wipe-down for a shiny, fresh-smelling finish.
  • Windows and Mirrors: Mix vinegar, lemon juice and warm water. Fill a spray bottle with the solution. Spray it on your windows and wipe with paper towels or newspapers.
  • Chrome: Use apple cider vinegar on a soft cotton cloth to rub it clean. Then, use a fresh cloth with a dab of baby oil to restore it to a bright shine.
  • Brass: Worcestershire sauce, vinegar and salt solution
  • Copper Fittings: Make a paste of either lemon or lime juice and salt. Rub gently to clean.

  • Stainless Steel: Clean with a cloth dampened with undiluted white vinegar.
  • Aluminum: Using a soft cloth, clean with a solution of cream of tartar and water.
  • Plastic Surfaces: Use a mixture of one part white vinegar and two parts warm water.
  • Decks: Use a mixture of one part white vinegar and eight parts warm water.
  • Interior Woods: Can be cleaned by using olive oil or almond oil. The oil will provide natural moisturizers for the wood and add shine at the same time. Don’t use these oils on exterior surfaces, however, since they don’t hold up in direct sun.

More formulas for natural cleaning alternatives

Antifouling Paint

Most antifouling bottom paints are harmful to marine life. The newest coatings are formulated to have a less toxic and less long-lasting effect. Silicon, teflon, and other “non-fouling” paints rely on a slick surface to inhibit growth rather than on toxic ingredients to kill growth.

The Main Types of Antifouling Paint in Use Are:


“Sloughing” paints are partially soluble; the active ingredient is constantly leaching out which exposes fresh paint.

Hard Antifouling

“Contact leaching” paints which create a porous film on the surface. Biocides are held in the pores, and released slowly. It has extended antifouling properties with limited leaching or sloughing of toxic metals into the marine environment.

Teflon/Silicon Coatings

Produce hard, slick surfaces to which fouling growth cannot attach. These non-toxic coatings are not as effective as the biocide-based paints. Special conditions are required for application and complaints have been reported about slippery conditions during hauling, and short-lived results.

SealCoat System

Uses biocide free epoxy resin as a bonding agent that seals the surface, and the finishing layer consists of synthetic micro-fibers that protrude slightly from the epoxy layers, thus resembling the velvet-like skin of the seal.

SealCoat works mechanically due to the movement of the fibers in the water, even when the boat remains idle. The system can provide five years of continuous and effective fouling protection, and can be applied to all kinds of surfaces, such as steel, aluminum, plastic, wood, fiberglass etc.

SealCoat is suitable for all types of boats (sailing or cruisers), and especially for those that retain their full displacement when cruising. While SealCoat is an environmentally friendly antifouling method, it is expensive and must be applied by a trained specialist. It is also easily damaged and cannot be repainted.

Hull Cleaning

Hulls painted with ablative paints should not be cleaned in the water, as the scrubbing action will release paint and its associated biocide. If using a pressure washer to clean the hull, the pressure should be set at the minimum level needed to remove the slime.

The best option is to haul your boat out at a marina which has a ‘closed-loop’ system where runoff is collected in a settlement tank and filtered before being reused.
Hulls painted with hard paints may be cleaned in the water, but care must be taken to use the least abrasive material possible.

Marine-Friendly Painting Tips

Do You Need Antifouling Paint?

Antifouling paint is expensive and toxic; you may be able to do without it. Try using regular paint and a coat of slick bottom wax. If you have a small boat, you can avoid using antifouling paint by storing the boat on dry land. If you keep a boat in the water for prolonged periods, scrubbing the bottom with a long-handled brush once a month may be sufficient.

Use ‘Hard’ Bottom Paint

This reduces the amount of toxic paint which sloughs off your boat bottom. Refrain from hull cleaning for a minimum of 60 days after applying ‘hard’ antifouling paint.

Use a Tarp or Drop Sheet

When scraping or sanding the bottom, use a tarp to collect the old flakes, which are still hazardous. All sanding and scraping of the boat should be done away from the water, if possible. If it’s a breezy day, use part of the tarp to form a windbreak; this prevents the flakes from blowing off the drop sheet. Collect all paint residue and correctly dispose of it at an appropriate waste facility. A vacuum is useful in cleanup and containing of the small particles.

Paint Brush Cleaner

Non-toxic, citrus oil based solvents are now available commercially under several brand names, e.g. CitraSolve. Paint brushes and rollers used for an on-going project can be saved overnight, or even up to a week, without cleaning at all. Wrap the brush or roller snugly in a plastic bag. Squeeze out air pockets and store away from light. The paint won’t dry because air can’t get to it. Unwrap the brush or roller the next day and continue with the job.

Mix Paints and Other Liquids on Shore

Mix on shore and have only small amounts of paints and other liquids open on the dock or boat at any time. Mix paints well before decanting to smaller containers, to ensure consistency.

Keep Open Paint Can Inside a Larger Plastic Bucket

This gives you more protection against spills. You can also set the paint can lid on the larger bucket lid, and it will be less likely to be stepped on or kicked into.

Store Partially Full Cans Upside Down

Leftover paint can be saved for months if stored properly. Make sure the lids are well sealed, then store the cans upside down. This prevents air from getting inside the can and causing the paint to thicken and dry.

Properly Dispose of Old Paint, Solvents, and Thinners

Dispose of these hazardous materials at an appropriate household waste facility. Do not dispose of paint or chemical containers in regular dumpsters. Before you throw away any leftover chemicals or paints, ask around to see if someone else can use them.

In the US, recreational boat waste can be disposed of for free at any household hazardous waste drop site. For the locations nearest you, call The Hazardous Waste Hotline (US), 1-800-633-7585.

Marine-Friendly Boating Tips

Buying a New Engine?

An estimated 30 percent of all fuel and oil used in two-stroke engines ends up in the water. Manufacturers around the world are responding to this concern by developing four-stroke marine engines, lean-burn two-stroke engines, and fuel injection systems which greatly reduce the amount of oil and fuel entering the water and air emissions. A four stroke is also quieter, smoother and easier to use. Since it runs cleaner, there is also less fouling of spark plugs, one of the things that makes engines hard to start.

Fill Portable Fuel Tanks on Shore - Never Fill Them on Board

Take them ashore or on a fuel dock where spills are less likely to occur.

Don't Overfill Fuel Tanks

Fuel expands as it warms, and excess fuel will escape through the vent line. Rough seas can also cause spillage from over-full tanks. When filling a built-in fuel tank, use your hand to check for air escaping from the vent. When the tank is nearly full, you’ll feel a distinct increase in airflow. That is the signal to stop filling. Don’t trust the automatic shutoff on the gas nozzle; the fuel filling nozzle should be attended at all times.

Close the Vent

On portable gas tanks when the engine is not in use or when the tank is stored. Avoid pumping out the bilge – use absorbent “bilge pillows” which are designed to absorb petroleum products and repel water. Disposable cloths also work for this purpose. Check to see if your marina offers a bilge pump-out service.

Recycle Fluids

Ask your marina if they recycle fluids. Use a drain pan to capture used engine or outdrive oil. Do the same when changing the ethylene glycol (toxic) antifreeze in a closed freshwater cooling system. And don’t forget oil filters and batteries are recyclable, too.

Clean All Mud and Debris

From the boat, trailer, propeller, live well, and anchors before leaving the boat launch to prevent the spread of exotic species that cause severe habitat alteration and degradation.

Avoid Pumping Out Raw Sewage

If your boat doesn’t have an installed toilet, you should consider using a portable one, commonly referred to as a “port-a-potty”. It should be emptied at a pump-out station or proper disposal site. Onboard holding tanks are useful, but they require pump-out facilities ashore. If possible, avoid disinfectants, which usually contain harsh chemicals.

Note: It is illegal to dump untreated sewage anywhere within the Canadian or US three-mile territorial limit. In other protected waters, this limit is extended.

Reporting Pollution Incidents

Polluters are required to report any hazardous waste or oil spill to the Coast Guard without delay. If you notice someone polluting the water with oil, garbage or other pollutants, either accidentally or with wilful intent, report it immediately.

Who Should You Call to Report Marine Pollution?

In the US:
Coast Guard’s 24 Hour National Response Center: 1-800-424-8802
Or contact your local Coast Guard Station on VHF Channels 9 or 16

In Canada:
BC and Yukon 1-800-889-8852
Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Ontario, Northwest Territories, Arctic 1-800-265-0237
Quebec 1-800-363-4735
Maritimes 1-800-565-1582
Newfoundland 1-800-563-2444

In the UK:
Phone the UK Pollution Hotline: 0800 80 70 60

In Australia:
Northern Territories Pollution Hotline (1.800.064567)

Information Sources

US Coast Guard Sea Partners
Michigan Department of Natural Resources
Fisheries and Oceans Canada
Canadian Coast Guard – Office of Boating Safety
Guide to Green Boating, by The Georgia Strait Alliance
Maryland Department of Natural Resources

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