The Clean Boating Act of 2008

The Clean Boating Act of 2008

The Senate and House passed the Clean Boating Act of 2008, introduced by Senators Bill Nelson (D-FL) and Barbara Boxer (D-CA) and Representatives Steve LaTourette (R-OH) and Candice Miller (R-MI). The Clean Boating Act fully and permanently restores a permit exemption for recreational boats’ non-polluting incidental discharges. The President signed the bill into law July 29, 2008, just two days before the EPA public comment period closed on their proposal for the new permitting scheme.


In 1973, the EPA recognized that it would be costly and unnecessary to subject recreational boaters to the complex NPDES permitting requirements designed for large vessels such as cruise ships, cargo ships, and supertankers. The EPA accepted that everyday family boats were not the intended focus of the permitting rules adopted to protect the environment from pollution generated by large commercial boats, and issued recreational boaters an exemption to NPDES permitting requirements for non-polluting discharges.

In September 2006, a U.S. District Court ruling reversed the EPA’s permit exemption for water-based discharges that occur during the normal operation of recreational boats. This includes deck run-off, bilge water, gray water, and engine cooling water, among others. As a result, the EPA was directed to write NPDES permitting regulations for discharges incidental to the normal operation of recreational boats by September 2008.

The court ruling was initially meant to overturn an NPDES permit exemption for the release of ballast water from commercial ships. Large ocean-going ships use ballast water for stability, taking on water to weigh the vessel down during transit, and then releasing this water in port. It is not uncommon for one of these ships to take on water in Europe, cross the Atlantic Ocean, and discharge the ballast water when entering a US port. It is estimated that some 10,000 invasive species travel the oceans this way.

Overturning this ballast discharge exemption resulted in the inclusion of recreational boats in the same category as these commercial ships. While minimizing the exchange of ballast water from one international port to another is very important in reducing the risk of aquatic invasive species, it is equally important not to sweep small recreational boats into the same regulatory scheme as commercial ships. It was clearly never the intention of the law, or the EPA, to treat day-boaters the same as these large ocean-going ships. Recreational vessels’ polluting discharges are well-regulated under the Clean Vessel Act, the Oil Pollution Act, and the Clean Water Act for. There isn’t a need for an additional layer of permitting and regulation for the release of non-polluting discharges from recreational boats.

The Clean Boating Act of 2008, passed in July, enshrines into law the EPA’s 35-year old CWA permit exemption for recreational boats.  It also works to protect the health of the nation's waterways by pursuing whether or not reasonable and practicable best management practices need to be put into place for some incidental discharges. This important bill preserves recreational boating and the boating industry, taking a balanced approached that recognizes that pleasure boat discharges are completely different from land-based industrial facilities and commercial ships.

Our Goal

ASA supports the exemption of recreational boaters from NPDES permit requirements for the release of non-polluting discharges incidental to normal boat operation, and working with the boating industry to have the Clean Boating Act of 2008 signed into law.

Our Position

Nearly 75-percent of the 18 million Americans who own a boat use their boat for the purpose of recreational fishing, making it the most popular activity while boating. In addition, almost half of boaters and boating anglers reported that when they first went boating, the primary activity was to fish.

Family-owned recreational boats cannot be equated with commercial ships, and should not be subjected to complex CWA permit requirements for the following reasons:

  • Recreational boat discharges are insignificant in comparison to the large quantities of commercial ship ballast water and gray water discharged into U.S. waters.  Recreational boats emit only minor amounts of non-polluting discharges such as bilge water, deck runoff, engine cooling water, and gray water, and these discharges are necessary for the safe and normal functioning of these boats. There would be no significant improvement in the environment by requiring boaters to obtain NPDES permits for the privilege of boating.
  • Recreational boats are owned and operated for fun by individuals and families not accustomed to navigating a complex permitting system or paying large permit fees. And while requiring boaters to get one permit would be daunting and challenging enough, under the new permitting scheme boaters would have to obtain a separate permit for every state whose waters they may travel. This would become a significant factor in determining recreational boat ownership and operation. Boating and angler recruitment would suffer as a result.
  • The EPA would not be able to alert and educate all U.S. boat owners in a timely fashion about the need to obtain permits from the EPA and the 45 states with authority to issue these permits. Thirty-two percent of U.S. adults went boating in 2006 and there are nearly 18 million recreational boats in use in the U.S. While states do have information on registered boat owners, there is simply no reliable way to identify and contact the many non-registered or non-documented boat owners.
  • It would be much more effective to put EPA and the states’ energies into working closely with boating organizations to help educate boaters about already existing boater best practices. EPA and the states should look to boost the funding and profile of the many programs nationwide that educate boaters on the simple steps they can take to reduce their impact on the environment such as using absorbent pads when refueling or using biodegradable soaps and cleaners.

A new permit program would have an immediate and severe negative impact not only on the hundreds of thousands men and women who are employed by companies that build recreational boats, manufacture marine engines and accessories, sell and service boats, and provide facilities and services for boaters; but also the 1.68 million men and women who work in the recreational fishing industry. The majority of these companies are small businesses that would likely see their businesses collapse.
Therefore, ASA cannot emphasize enough the need to avoid the imposition of these onerous and unnecessary permit requirements on recreational boaters and anglers. The new permit program that EPA is developing is an enormous undertaking of unprecedented scale and will have profound impacts on the recreational boater, recreational angler and all the industries and communities that support them.