Bilge Dumping in Prince William Sound Small Vessels, Big Impacts

Prince William Sound (Figure 1) is located in southcentral Alaska. It covers 65,000 square kilometers (personal communication Scott Pegau, 2013) and there are 3,800 miles of coastline (Alaska Department of Fish and Game, 2013) containing environmentally sensitive areas that are important for commercial harvests.


Prince William Sound (Figure 1) is located in southcentral Alaska. It covers 65,000 square kilometers (personal communication Scott Pegau, 2013) and there are 3,800 miles of coastline (Alaska Department of Fish and Game, 2013) containing environmentally sensitive areas that are important for commercial harvests. Cordova itself is listed as the 15th biggest port in the United States for commercial fish, bringing in $40 million in 2013 (The Cordova Times, 2013). These areas include marshes, tidal flats, and deltas. There are a total of 220 species of birds, 30 land mammals, and a dozen different types of marine mammals that live in the area; all of these animals need healthy environments are susceptible to changes to their habitat (Alaska Department of Fish and Game, 2013). This means that we need to be careful with how we treat the Sound and protect it. Throughout the Prince William Sound area there are a total of 1,588 available slips for boats to tie up; 727 are in Cordova, 511 in Valdez, and 350 in Whittier (Figure 1; City of Cordova, City of Valdez, and Whittier Alaska, 2013). Having this many boats means that there are lots of ways for pollutants to enter the water and cause problems. One of the main sources of water pollution in Prince William Sound is bilge dumping. Bilge dumping introduces dangerous hydrocarbons to the marine system which harms the plants and animals that make up the very resources that we rely on for a sustainable economy.

Figure 1 Prince William Sound

For our project we are focusing on small vessel bilge dumping. This includes boats up to the size of a seiner or about 60 feet. Bilge dumping is a big problem on bigger boats and especially tankers and cruise ships where there are more lenient rules. Since only a few of these types of boats come into Prince William Sound, and only in the summer, we are focusing just on small vessels with residence times longer than just the summer. This is a problem in our area because many people do not realize the effects that bilge water dumping can have. Many people are doing it unconsciously or don’t know that what they are doing is illegal or unsafe. 

We propose to address the issue of bilge water pollution by increasing awareness through education and incentives. This way boaters will be more aware of their impacts and how they can help increase the health of our ecosystem.


Figure 2 Diagram of a ship’s bilge with various hydrocarbon source inputs – Bright Hub Engineering 

The bilge (Figure 2) is usually the lowest part of the ship. All of the pollutants and contaminated water collects there. Bilge water can possibly contain oils, gasoline, solvents, detergents, human waste, and many chemicals. A large ship can accumulate up to 8 metric tons every twenty-­‐four hours of operating (The Daily Star, 2011). To get rid of these toxins most harbors and ports have ways to dump it safely, some with fees. So to avoid these fees or with ports that don’t have the proper facilities (Wikipedia, 2013) some ships dump it illegally. By doing this they are releasing harmful pollutants into the ocean. Others accidently introduce oil waste into the ocean through leaky systems. The United States uses 700 million gallons of oil everyday and the world uses 3 billion (PWSSC, 2013). In one report it was estimated that 10-­‐15% of the 50,000 commercial ships illegally dump their bilge worldwide (New York Times, 2010). Dumped bilge accounts for 10% of all oil that enters the oceans while oil spills account for almost the same at 12% (World Wildlife Fund, 2013). This is a good comparative of how much bilge water pollution there is in the ocean. It also shows how much is being done to prevent and clean oil spills but not dumped bilge, which makes up almost the same amount of oil in the oceans.

Bilge can be dangerous to humans, fish, wildlife, and the water (Figure 3). It can cause high toxicity in the water, increased pollutant concentrations, can make marine mammals less able to survive stress (University of California, 2013), increase erosion on vegetative banks, and increase nutrients (Environmental Protection Agency [EPA], 2013). Some other problems of bilge dumping include small oil spills, increasing harbor costs, affecting tourism and fishing, and overall degradation of the water quality (EPA, 2013). If a harbor is not clean, due to bilge dumping or other trash, then it will have higher costs to dredge it and keep it maintained. Other problems include reducing and contaminating the availability of seafood quality which impacts many fishermen in Prince William Sound. Further, hydrocarbon pollution has been linked to increased herring disease (EPA, 2013).

Figure 3 Harbor seals swimming in an oil sheen – Georgia Straight Alliance


The Cordova Harbor is subject to oil pollution through bilge dumping and other inputs. Researchers have found high levels of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, or PAHs in the water. They attribute these high levels to stagnant water: poor flushing of the harbor due to it’s enclosed plan which does not have much circulation. This means that all of the pollutants get trapped in and accumulate causing the organisms in the harbor to also have increased toxins. There is actually so much pollution in the harbor that it is used as a positive control for hydrocarbon contamination for determining the presence of lingering oil from the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill (EPA, 2013) as well as other possible sources. Bilge water is extremely dangerous to shellfish and mussels because it can easily kill them by having the toxins enter their body. These toxins are stored in the shellfish and can be passed onto humans when they are harvested for food. Dumped bilge water can also stimulate algae growth, which will take the oxygen out of the water for fish causing populations to decline (EPA, 2013).


Currently there are several legal acts and regulations set in place in order to address oil, bilge and other pollution on vessels. The Federal Water Pollution Control Act (i.e., the Clean Water Act, 1948) sets most of the regulations on oil dumping on boats. This act has made it illegal to dump any oils or oily waste into United States waters if it causes a discoloring sheen on the water or sludge beneath the surface (Figure 4). Therefore, all motorized vessels are required to be able to store those oily substances on board. This storage must be something portable so it can be taken to a proper facility. If you’re on a boat used for recreational purposes, it can be something as simple as a bucket. It’s illegal to purposely dump oils, with a punishable fee up to $5,000.

Figure 4 Oil sheen  – New England Boating

All fishing vessels in the United States measuring 26 feet or longer must have a clear sign on the vessel stating the discharge restrictions for the passengers and crew. An MSD (marine sanitation device) is required for any vessels operating within U.S. boundaries and installed with toilets. An MSD is a piece of equipment that retains, treats and/or discharges bilge. The EPA and Coast Guard regulate these on boats, and the Coast Guard acknowledges 3 types of MSDs. Vessels with out toilets do not have to follow MSD requirements. Vessels with or without MSDs are allowed to dump nearly anywhere, accept in fresh water bodies and no discharge zones. Alaska currently does not have any no discharge zones.

The Act to Prevent Pollution from ships sets regulations on what kind of garbage can be discarded and where. Ground food waste, paper or rags are prohibited from being dumped less than 3 miles from the nearest land. Regular food waste, paper, rags, glass, metal, bottles, crockery, and similar trash are prohibited from being dumped less than 12 miles off land. Floating “dunnage,” linings and other packing materials are prohibited from being dumped less than 25 miles off land. Plastics, including synthetic ropes, fishing nets, and plastic bags are prohibited from being dumped anywhere in the ocean.

Because Copper River and Bering River commercial fishing district is in the United States Exclusive Economic Zone, it falls under the management of the FMP (Fishery Management Plan for the Salmon Fisheries in the EEZ off the Coast of Alaska). The FMP states that because the EEZ only reaches 3 nautical miles off shore, the fishing district is limited to the area inside those boundaries. Therefore, absolutely none of the above waste is legal to be dumped overboard within the fishing boundaries.



To help ensure that people are well aware of the environmental impacts small vessel pollution produces, The City of Cordova’s Student Council will put up educational posters, and administrate flyers to the town. This will act as a simple, yet informative act to educate people on the matter of small vessel pollution, especially since it will be coming from the towns Student Council.


We propose to augment the annual SERVS (Ship Escort/Response Vessel System Program enacted by Alyeska Pipeline Service Company) oil spill response training with an additional courses about the environmental impacts of bilge water pollution and ways to properly care for the bilge on one’s boats. This service will last for half a day and participants will be paid by the City of Cordova. Instead of only once a year, this program will be offered twice a year so that people can really understand the risks they cause by dumping their bilge waters into the ocean. Since the Harbor Master is the one to implement and enforce the rules, he will also be asked to take the half a day course to ensure that everyone is on the same page.


Over the years, The Clean Boating Foundation has worked towards cleaning up the waters in Washington State, however they wish to expand their work and help improve the waters around Alaska. The Clean Boating Foundation will provide oil observant pads to all registered small vessel boats in the City of Cordova. These oil observant pads are placed into ones bilge where they work to absorb the oil. Then one does not have to worry about dumping oily bilge water when they go out to dump their bilge in the legal boundaries outside of the harbor.

We then propose a final step of a tax incentive to encourage people not to dump their oily bilge water into the ocean. The cost of this tax incentive will be covered through the selling of sunken ships that the City of Cordova takes by eminent domain within the harbor. The city will sell these sunken ships and the money will go back into the City of Cordova’s harbor where it can go to wherever the Harbor Master deems fit. We propose that the Harbor Master use the funds from scraping the derelict boats to pay for tax incentives that bolster proper disposal of bilge water.

The tax incentive will hopefully give people a good enough reason to take a little bit of extra time to properly dispose of their oily bilge water.

However, if one does not choose to properly dispose of their oily bilge water, there will be an extra fees. Every six months, registered boat owners will be asked to report back to the Harbor Master when they last properly dumped their bilge. If they did it correctly, they are eligible for the tax incentive, if they cannot prove that they took care of their waste properly, they will have to pay a fine.

It is illegal for one to dump their oily bilge water, yet people do it all the time. We know that there are laws telling people where they can dump their bilge water, and people still do not completely listen to those laws. So we have proposed these approaches of education, oil observant pads, and a tax incentive because they are convenient for boat owners to do and we believe that they do not stray far from ones every day agendas. Hopefully, with these simple approaches, people will practice the safe disposing of their bilge waters.


  1. Alaska Department of Fish and Game. Viewed 2013
  2. City of Cordova. Viewed 2013­‐harbor-­‐moorage
  3. City of Whittier Alaska. Viewed 2013
  4. City of Valdez. Viewed 2013
  5. The Cordova Times. Margaret Bauman. November 08, 2013. Viewed 2013 ranks-­‐15th-­‐for-­‐fish-­‐landings
  6. The Daily Star. Abu Sayed MD. January 29, 2011. Viewed 2013­‐details.php?nid=171896
  7. Environmental Protection Agency. Viewed 2013
  8. Federal Water Pollution Control Act
  9. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administrations Marine Fisheries Alaska. Viewed 2013
  10. The New York Times. Theo Emery. February 13, 2010. Viewed 2013­‐blowers-­‐help-­‐us-­‐fight-­‐ocean-­‐ dumping.html?_r=0
  11. Prince William Sound Science Center. personal communication with Kara Johnson and Scott Pegau. November 2013
  12. University of California Agriculture and Natural Resources. Viewed 2013
  13. Wikipedia. Viewed 2013
  14. World Wildlife Fund. Viewed 2013


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Bilge Dumping in Prince William Sound Small Vessels, Big Impacts

Prince William Sound (Figure 1) is located in southcentral Alaska. It covers 65,000 square kilometers (personal communication Scott Pegau, 2013) and there are 3,800 miles of coastline (Alaska Department of Fish and Game, 2013) containing environmentally sensitive areas that are important for commercial harvests.

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