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Volume 39 Issue 15 • August 13-19, 2009
now in our 39th season

Boating, Sailing and Clean Harbors

by Dr. Sarah D. Oktay
Managing Director UMass Boston Nantucket Field Station

As residents of an island 26 miles out to sea, we have a unique responsibility to prevent pollution, litter, and chemicals from entering our harbor. Our community has depended and still depends on the ocean for our livelihood, from the scallops we harvest in the fall and winter to hosting a plethora of ocean-going vessels from skiffs to yachts in the summer as a tourist destination.

When we travel to the mainland on the ferry or sail through the harbor, it is paramount that we corral our waste and minimize our impact on the ocean. As a chemical oceanographer, I have spent the past 18 years measuring the chemical reach of radioactivity, trace metals, and hospital waste released through human activity recorded in the sediments in the Gulf of Mexico, in the waters of our rivers, hidden in the Spanish moss clinging to trees in Louisiana, and across the globe in streams and lakes in the U.S.S.R. and China.  Over the past 200 years, we as a nation have spent billions of dollars in remediation and research to right the environmental wrongs we have committed in our use of rivers, harbors, and the ocean. Only within the past few years have some of our larger mistakes and environmental footprints started down the road of rehabilitation. Buried in the heartache and runoff from the 9-11 World Trade Center attack was evidence that for the first time in perhaps thirty years, blue mussels and other bivalves were returning to the sediments of the lower Hudson River estuary bordering Manhattan.

 For years, people believed that the ocean was so large and well buffered that there was no way we could adversely affect it, but now we know better. We have increased the sea surface temperature (by 1.0 degree Celsius in past 140 years) and decreased the pH (lowered by 0.1 units) across the globe. During the past few decades, scientists have begun to quantify the types of environmental damage we are inflicting on the ocean and coastal areas. From the metals and fuel that sank to the bottom during the attack on the U.S. Naval fleet at Pearl Harbor to the unburnt fuel spewed in black clouds due to the poor efficiency of two-stroke boat engines and the toxicity of bottom paints, our use of the ocean has led to a variety of contamination issues.

In order to protect our harbor and the ocean, the first line of defense is establishing a “no discharge zone” and Nantucket was one of the first to do that in Massachusetts. A relative “no-brainer,” establishing a “No Discharge Area”  makes it illegal to dump sewage. The official definition for a "No Discharge Area" is a designated body of water that prohibits the discharge of treated and untreated boat sewage.  Federal Law prohibits the discharge of untreated sewage from vessels within all navigable waters of the U. S., which include territorial seas within three miles of shore.  Both of Nantucket's harbors were designated as a "No Discharge Area"  in June 1992. Sewage wastes discharged from boats may degrade water quality by introducing microorganisms, nutrients, and chemical products into the marine environment. Microorganisms may introduce diseases like hepatitis to people in contact with the water, and can contaminate shellfish beds. The excess nutrients present in sewage can cause algal blooms which use up oxygen in the water when they decompose as does the decay of the sewage itself.  Oxygen depletion or hypoxia can stress fish and other aquatic animals. Chemical products can be toxic to marine and estuarine life and could pose a problem in areas where boats congregate and where there is little tidal flushing. Complying with vessel sewage discharge laws and regulations, and using pumpout facilities, are necessary steps to protect public health, water quality, and the marine environment.

Water quality hazards associated with docks, harbors, and boats of all sizes include oil spills, contamination from the chemicals used to clean boats, leaks from bilge pumps, accidental or inadvertent (or even on purpose) release of material from the ships “head” or bathroom, and release of toxins from coatings used on the bottom or outside surfaces of the boat. In addition, litter in the form of ropes, netting, fishing gear, and the accoutrement of eating and living on board can also contribute to a polluted harbor. No one enjoys seeing a beer can floating in a marina. The Nantucket and Madaket Harbors Update Action Plan includes dozens of action items designed to control oil spills and pollution while advocating for best management practices for boat cleaning and servicing.

It is pretty easy to remember not to let plastic water bottles go overboard, yet across our ocean and on the shores of Nantucket, piles and piles of plastic accumulate to be carted away by the approximately 400 volunteers of the Nantucket Clean Team and the many other concerned people who clean up our beaches every day.  Instead of spending another 1000 words describing the tentacles of plastic infiltration into our oceans, I'd like to point you toward an excellent summary of the extent of the plastic problem, including information on the Pacific Garbage patch in the North Pacific gyre at an online article by Susan Casey (www.cdnn.info/news/article/a071104.html; accessed on August 9, 2009). Ideally we want to use less plastic bottles, if any at all.

Ironically, health concerns arising from the effects of bisphenol-A (BPA) in commonly used household items may contribute more to our reduction of plastic usage than any amount of environmental concern. Studies by the CDC found bisphenol A in the urine of 95% of adults sampled in 1988–1994 and in 93% of children and adults tested in 2003–04 (www.cdc.gov/ExposureReport/environmental_phenols1.htm; accessed August 9, 2009).  What is more difficult to remember is not to use shampoos or cleaners that harm the environment when they degrade into bioavailable phosphate or even worse, into byproducts that mimic natural hormones known as endocrine disruptors that are incorporated into algae, fish, and other marine life. Plastic contamination is rampant across the ocean and is one of the primary hazards facing marine mammals, sea turtles, and many species of pelagic birds. One of the most difficult to fix problems in our environment is the presence of endocrine disruptors and pharmaceuticals in our waterways which have wreaked havoc on fish populations and reproduction and led to severe mutations in amphibians.

The use of anti-fouling paints on the bottom of boats led to a classic case of unintended consequences. Anti-fouling paints are copper, zinc, or tin compounds that were designed to simply poison the critters we did not want growing on the bottom of  our hulls. These creatures include algae, bryozoa, tunicates, sponges, barnacles, and a wide variety of insidious surface-attaching freeloaders. Antifouling paints (AFP) are considered pesticides and in 1988, the Congress made it illegal to use or produce organotin types of AFP due to available research that showed that oysters, mussels and other marine creatures were accumulating lethal doses of these agents in their tissues. These contaminants, like most in our ecosystem, tend to bioaccumulate, or get concentrated as organic matter moves up the food chain. In that manner, a duck that eats these creatures gets a much larger body load of toxins as do humans when we consume fish or fowl associated with these pathways.

Massachusetts state law (Code of Massachusetts Regulations; title 333, § 13.08(2)(a) (2005) prohibits the application of antifouling products containing tributyltin “to the hull or bottom of any non-aluminum hulled boat, ship or vessel less than 25 meters in length.” In addition, “no person shall disperse, dispose of or deposit paint, paint scrapings, paint chips or paint waste containing tributyltin into any lake, stream, harbor, estuary, ocean, marina, canal or other water body. Tributyltin product wastes must be disposed of in a manner as not to contaminate any lake, stream, harbor, estuary, ocean, marina, canal or area subject to the [Massachusetts] Wetlands Protection Act.”. Slowly, but surely across the nation, organotin contamination is dropping in the water column, although the bottom of many harbors is lined with sediments contaminated with these and other metal pollutants. California is leading the way in investigating alternatives for metal-containing antifouling paints. This web site: commserv.ucdavis.edu/cesandiego/seagrant/nontoxicdemo.htm discusses a variety of concerns and options for boaters and explains how copper based AFP have contaminated San Diego marinas and how they are combating the problem.

Locally, a high profile and much anticipated event which is currently underway is tackling the issues of marina protection and safe water use by incorporating a host of tactics developed by the “Sailor for the Sea Program.”  The Nantucket Race Week is hosted by the Nantucket Yacht Club and the Great Harbor Yacht Club to benefit Nantucket Community Sailing (NCS), a non-profit, educational organization that provides affordable access to sailing and water sports to the public. This year, the organizers of the event, Nantucket Community Sailing, ReMain Nantucket, and both yacht clubs are working together with the Sailors for the Sea to hold the first Clean Regatta (www.sailorsforthesea.org/Programs-and-Projects/Clean-Regattas.aspx). A Clean Regatta is an program designed to reduce adverse impacts from boating and sailing activities and events. Sailors for the Sea (www.sailorsforthesea.org/) is a nonprofit organization that educates and empowers the boating community to protect and restore our oceans and coastal waters. They advocate education and policy initiatives that help people become aware of the things that we might do every day that can harm our waterways. The Nantucket Race week program is striving for bronze status in the larger events and silver status for the youth sailing events.

Some of the Clean Regatta initiatives that are being implemented are:

  • Enforcing and monitoring the “No discharge” rules in the harbor
  • Recycle glass, plastic, metal, and paper and provide multiple points for easy recycling
  • Beach clean-up on August 17th at Jetties Beach with the help of the Nantucket Clean Team (www.ackcleanteam.org)
  • Distribution and use of refillable water bottles and set-up of several watering stations for refills
  • Encourage green cleaning products
  • Promote environmentally friendly bottom paint
  • Use bicycles and public transportation
  • Support land-based water quality initiatives

Go to www.nantucketraceweek.org/page/nrw/news_events_nrw/cleanregatta for details on what is being done throughout the week and how they are meeting their goals of reducing waste, educating sailors, practicing sustainable water use, cleaning the harbor and promoting the use of environmentally responsible paint, cleaning products, and party supplies.

If you are participating in the Race Week events, do your part to help make the Clean Regatta a success. Wherever you live, try to be aware of what you use in your home, on your car or boat, or during a trip to the beach and minimize or eliminate your use of products that will simply wind up floating away to sea or contaminating the flesh of the fish you eat. Our actions inform our children's and affect them everyday. See you on the water, or at the Jetties beach clean up (8:00 am) on August 17th.

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