Environmental Laws & Regulations

Environmental Laws & Regulations

The degree and amount of garbage and pollution in our coastal waterways is constantly increasing. Water pollution ruins not only the beauty of the country’s waterways, but also may damage boating equipment and harm human and marine life. Various environmental laws and regulations are enforced to prevent littering and to govern waste management, display of information placards and aquatic nuisance species.

Environmental laws and regulations give some practical information about pollution of the environment through marine activity. Chemicals from sewage, garbage or hydrocarbons can greatly compromise the integrity of the waterways.

It is the responsibility of all boaters to understand and follow all environmental laws and regulations. A person who violates any of the requirements is liable to civil penalties, fines, and imprisonment. This section will cover some of the environmental laws and regulations with which operators should be familiar.

Pollution Regulations (33 CFR 151/155)

Throwing, discharging or depositing any refuse matter of any kind (this includes garbage, oil and other liquid pollutants) into U.S. waters is prohibited by Annex V of MARPOL 73/78.

Littering (Garbage and Plastic)

Many marine species mistake plastic and other waste as food, and it therefore poses a major hazard to their safety. Birds and other animals are often found entangled in fishing line, nets or plastic rings. Various federal and state laws have been enacted to prohibit throwing or depositing any sort of refuse matter into U.S. waters.

1.2 Boat with trail of garbage

Limitations have been placed on the discharge of garbage from vessels by the Act to Prevent Pollution from Ships (MARPOL ANNEX V). It is illegal to dump plastic trash of any kind in any ocean or navigable U.S. waterways. Discharge of garbage is also prohibited in all navigable waters of the U.S., including the Great Lakes and inland waters. Discharge of other types of garbage is permitted outside certain distances away from shore, based on the nature of the garbage. The table below indicates the appropriate discharge regulations by garbage type.

Table 1.        Discharge Based on Garbage Type

Garbage Type


Plastics– includes synthetic ropes, plastic bags and fishing nets

Discharge is prohibited in all areas.

Comminuted or ground food waste, paper, rags, glass, etc.

Discharge is prohibited when less than three miles from closest land.

Food waste, rags, paper, metal, glass, bottles, crockery and similar refuse

Discharge is prohibited when less than 12 miles from nearest land.

Floating dunnage, lining, and packing


Discharge is prohibited when less than 25 miles from closest land.


Boaters should be aware that state and local laws may place further restrictions on the disposal of garbage.

Other best practices and tips for boaters for respecting and caring for the environment include:

  • Make sure the engine is well maintained to reduce air pollution.
  • Use only paints approved for marine use.
  • When fueling, do not top off tanks and clean up any spilled fuel.
  • Keep the bilge clean and do not pump oily water overboard.
  • Use bilge absorbents in place of detergents.
  • Take garbage home (including cigarette butts) — do not litter.
  • Try not to use detergents — even biodegradable cleaners are hard on plants and animals that live in the water.
  • Avoid shoreline erosion — watch the wake and propeller wash.
  • Obey all speed limits for better fuel economy.
  • Report pollution.

Waste Management Plans

Vessels that measure more than 40 feet in length which travel in the ocean and are engaged in commerce or equipped with a galley and berthing are required to have a written waste management plan onboard. The plan should describe the procedures for collecting, processing, storing and discharging garbage. A specific crew member must also be designated as responsible for carrying out the waste management plans.

Display of Information Placards (Where Applicable)

Some watercraft are required by law to display information placards that provide clarity around applicable environmental regulations for their crew and passengers.

Vessels that measure at least 26 feet in length and that have machinery spaces are required to display an informational placard that measures at least 5 by 8 inches and is made of durable metal. The placard should be fixed at the bilge pump control station or in a conspicuous place in the machinery spaces. It should state the following:

“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.”

U.S. boats that are 26 feet or longer should also display a 4x9 durable placard in a prominent location onboard that notifies the crew and passengers of discharge guidelines.

Aquatic Nuisance Species

The spread of aquatic nuisance species (ANS) by recreational boaters is an increasing concern across the U.S. To avoid the spread and cross-contamination of invasive species, boaters should make certain that the hull of the boat is cleaned regularly. If the boat is towed over land from one body of water to another, this is extremely important. Rinsing or cleaning the hull regularly can help remove spores and other invasive species.

Milfoil, quagga mussels, zebra mussels and other ANS are being increasingly regulated by states to prevent their spread, with specific regional, state and local laws. Boaters should become familiar with local regulations regarding ANS and follow them implicitly.