Environmental Mandates

Protected Species

The boat operators must be aware of and comply with existing state and federal laws and regulations regarding the environment, including those species protected under the Endangered Species Act (https://www.epa.gov/laws-regulations/summary-endangeredspecies-act) and Marine Mammal Protection Act (https://www.fisheries.noaa.gov/node/1211) . Additional considerations are required if operating within a marine sanctuary or other protected body of water.

Boaters must understand the fragile nature of our national and state waterways. Every boater plays a role in protecting and safeguarding our waters and the wildlife and fishery within it. The U.S. Department of Commerce, through NOAA Fisheries, is charged with protecting whales, dolphins, porpoises, seals, and sea lions. Walrus, manatees, sea otters, and polar bears are protected by the U.S. Department of the Interior through the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Each state and or region of the country may have species of unique concern, which may be addressed by local or state laws and regulations.

Environmental Laws & Regulations

There is a growing problem of garbage and pollution in our coastal waterways. The current situation is highly alarming since water pollution can affect boating equipment, humans, and marine life and destroy the beauty of the country’s waterways. 

Fortunately, several environmental laws and regulations explain how marine activities affect the environment. These laws will give boaters a greater understanding and awareness of their responsibilities in complying with environmental laws and regulations. Violations of these laws and regulations may result in fines, jail time, and civil penalties.

Here’s a breakdown of some environmental laws and regulations operators should know.

Pollution Regulations (33 CFR 151/155)

In accordance with MARPOL 73/78, throwing, discharging, or depositing refuse matter of any type into US waters is prohibited.


The presence of plastic in the ocean poses a significant threat to marine life since many species mistake plastic and other waste for food. Many birds and other animals get tangled up in fishing lines, nets, or plastic rings. Federal and state laws prohibit throwing or dumping anything into US waters.

a fisherman aboard a boat in polluted water

As part of the Act to Prevent Pollution from Ships (MARPOL ANNEX V), garbage discharges are limited from boats. Dumping plastic trash in the ocean or navigable US waterways is illegal. Garbage disposal is also prohibited in all navigable waters of the United States, including the Great Lakes and inland waters. Depending on the type of garbage, other types may be discharged outside certain distances away from shore. 

Based on the kind of garbage, here are the appropriate discharge regulations: 

Garbage Type Discharge
PlasticsDischarge is prohibited everywhere.
Comminuted food waste, rags, paper, etc.It is illegal to discharge less than three miles from land.
Food waste, rags, paper, metal, bottles, pottery, etc.It is prohibited to discharge less than 12 miles from the nearest land.
Packing materials, lining, and floating dunnageIt is prohibited when discharge occurs less than 25 miles from the nearest land.

The following are other best practices and tips for boaters to respect and care for the environment:

  • Keep the engine clean to reduce air pollution.
  • Make sure the paint you use is marine-approved.
  • Ensure the bilge is clean, and do not dump oily water overboard.
  • Instead of detergents, use bilge absorbents.
  • Keep your speed down for better fuel economy.

Marine Sanitation Devices (MSDs): What Are They? 

Various bacteria, pathogens, and nutrients are present in human feces. Because of this, raw sewage and human waste can’t be discharged from a boat within US waters (inside the three-mile limit, out to 9 miles in the Gulf of Mexico) or navigable rivers. Federal regulations regarding sewage on boats are intended to prevent untreated sewage from entering our inland and coastal waters so that we will not have to swim or drink it. 

Even though recreation vessels are not required to be equipped with toilets, all boats with permanent toilets must be equipped with a holding tank or sanitation device approved by the US Coast Guard. A Marine Sanitation Device (MSD) prevents human waste pollution if approved and operable.

The types of MSDs are: 

  • Type I and Type II or Flow Through Devices
  • Type III or Holding Tanks 

Smaller boats under 65 feet in length may use a Type I, II, or III MSD. Any vessel over 65 feet long must have a Type II or III MSD. It is mandatory that all installed devices be certified by the US Coast Guard and should be marked as such.

Sanitation Regulations

Most inland and coastal waters require boats with installed toilets to have a sanitation system on board to control pollution. Some standards have been set by the Environmental Protection Agency, and regulations have been issued by the Coast Guard regarding the certification and use of Marine Sanitation Devices. Generally, sanitation systems include a head (toilet), a waste-treating device (MSD), and a holding tank.

IMPORTANT: The discharge of untreated sewage is only permitted beyond three nautical miles from the shoreline. A state or local law may impose additional restrictions on overboard discharges.

Waste Management Plans

A waste management plan is required for vessels over 40 feet long, engaged in commerce, or equipped with a galley and berthing in the ocean. There should be a plan for collecting, processing, storing, and dumping the garbage. A specific crew member must also carry out the waste management plan.

Hazardous Waste

Most of us come in contact with hazardous substances daily, whether or not we are aware of them. Every boater is responsible for being mindful of the risks associated with such pollutants and adhering to all regulations regarding their prevention. The back label on product packaging is one of the easiest ways to identify products that require special handling, use, or disposal. 

When a product’s label contains strong warning statements regarding personal health, it may also mean that the product may have significant environmental implications if improperly disposed of.  

Several hazardous boat products may include solvents, varnishes, cleaners, bottom paints, gasoline, diesel, oil, and antifreeze.

The Water Pollution Control Act prohibits the discharge of oil and hazardous substances into navigable waters. The propulsion machinery on all watercraft (powerboats) should have a system for holding oily mixtures onboard and transporting them to an approved location.

The following are some suitable retaining options that meet the federal retention requirement:

  • Bailers
  • Buckets
  • Bags made of heavy-duty plastic
  • Portable Pumps
  • Oil absorbent pads under the retaining options

Boaters must immediately notify the US Coast Guard if their vessel discharges oil or hazardous materials into US waters by calling (800) 424-8802.

Ensure that the following information is provided: location, estimated size and quantity of release, description, color, consistency, and odor of the substance, date and time of observation, the source and cause of the release, the substance, the weather, and any other information that may assist emergency personnel in responding to the incident.

It is also recommend to contact your insurance company if the spill is of a substantial size.

Displaying Information Placards 

Law requires some watercraft to display placards that provide information regarding environmental regulations. Consider a vessel with a machinery space greater than 26 feet in length. In that case, it is necessary to display an informational placard that measures at least five by eight inches and is made of durable metal. Placards should be displayed at the control station for the bilge pump or in a conspicuous location within the machinery area. 

The statement should include the following information:

“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 United States. 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 United States vessels of 26 feet or longer must display in a prominent location, a durable placard at least 4 by 9 inches notifying the crew and passengers of the discharge restrictions.”

A 4×9 durable placard that informs crew and passengers of discharge guidelines should also be placed in a prominent location on US boats that are 26 feet or longer.



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