Florida has more boats per capita than any other state. From skiffs, bay boats and center consoles to well-equipped offshore battlewagons and multi-million dollar megayachts, Floridians can’t get enough of the fishing and boating lifestyle. While a large percentage of these vessels are equipped with a marine head and freshwater system, it comes as a surprise that a vast majority of boaters still don’t know the difference between the terms “grey water” and “black water.”
What’s The Difference?
To keep it simple, grey water is wastewater from sinks, showers, onboard washing machines and dishwashers, and the runoff from washing our boats. Grey water is freshwater that contains nutrients that cause excessive vegetation growth and contributes to a decline in water quality. Rich in phosphates, grey water pollutes the seawater and encourages the growth of unwanted algae. Although grey water is not illegal to discharge, the practice is frowned upon. Containing harmful toxins such as phosphates, chlorine, inorganic salts and metals, soapy residue can devastate the ecosystem. Because boats are not connected to a permanent sanitary sewer system, grey water flows untreated into our local waterways and oceans. It’s important to think about the environment and protect our resources.
Containing harmful toxins such as phosphates, chlorine, inorganic salts and metals, soapy residue can devastate the ecosystem.
While not labeled as biodegradable, there are quality products that are environmentally safe such as Dawn or Joy soap. They work well with saltwater and are not only a good dishwashing agent, but they also work great as deck cleaner. I’ll mix up a 5-gallon bucket and wash my boat at the end of the day. If I have any leftover I pour it into my bilge to keep it smelling fresh. You can also purchase environmentally friendly shampoos and soaps to use in the shower. Every little bit helps. Another way to do your part is to simply use less product. A little cleaner and elbow grease can go a long way. Here in Florida our extremely diverse coastal backyard depends on clear, low nutrient water to remain healthy—especially our coral reefs. It has been well documented that nutrients introduced into near-shore waters have resulted in detrimental effects.
Black water refers to human waste from onboard toilets. Federal law states that untreated sewage (even if it’s been dosed with a deodorant product) CANNOT be discharged in inland or coastal waters. This means the sewage from a portable toilet or a Type III holding tank cannot be discharged unless you are more than three nautical miles offshore in the Atlantic or nine nautical miles offshore in the Gulf of Mexico. Federal law also states that if you have a holding tank with a Y-valve allowing direct overboard discharge of untreated waste, it must be secured in the closed position while operating in all inland and coastal waters.
How does this apply to the typical Florida boater who owns a center console? According to Florida statute 327.53, any vessel 26-feet or longer with an enclosed cabin and berthing facilities must have a working toilet and the operator must adhere to the rules and regulations. I called the U.S.C.G. to dig up the real scoop on discharging dookie. They were quick to tell me, “If we see ANY boat discharge raw sewage within the three or nine nautical mile boundary, they will be severely fined.”
This fine can cost violators upwards of $250. That’s a pretty expensive bathroom break. So again, what do we do on our center console with a direct line overboard? I’d suggest adding a macerator to the overboard line and not using the head inside the three or nine nautical mile restrictions.
So how are we supposed to get rid of our black water? Pump-out stations are the answer, and almost every marina has one. They are simple, safe and cheap (usually $5 to $10 per holding tank). A boater will secure their boat either at a dock or a mooring field and request pump-out service from the provider. Although a dock attendant operates most pump-out systems, some are coin-operated that a boater can use without assistance. A hose and fitting is connected from the pump-out equipment to the deck-fitting on the boat. The system is turned on, and a vacuum effectively sucks out all of the waste. There are also mobile marine waste management services that come to you.
In conclusion, I would like to share with you a story of where it has all gone wrong. Even though these same laws apply in the U.S. protective island of Samoa they are totally ignored, and the marine environment has been irreversibly harmed forever. Samoa has two tuna canning plants and a large fleet of foreign longliners. The watershed that feeds the area brings endless amounts of polystyrene, plastic and organic material into the harbor. The surrounding beaches are frequently closed from high E.coli concentrations from the fishing boats pumping raw sewage overboard. It is the saddest place I have ever seen and the environment has taken as serious toll. We are extremely fortunate here in Florida. We live in a region where people care and take a lot of pride in the environment. Let’s continue to all work towards keeping our waterways beautiful.
- Always discharge black water at an accredited facility.
- Use onshore restrooms when available.
- Treat onboard sanitation systems with products that don’t contain chlorine or formaldehyde.
- If pump-out stations are not available, encourage marinas to install them through the Clean Vessel Act.
- Use approved marine sanitation devices when underway.
- Use non-toxic and phosphate-free boat soaps.