Melissa Walsh

Melissa Walsh

Going Green for Blue Waterways

Great Lakes Scuttlebutt | July 2019 | Summer Issue 2019 July/August


Going Green for Blue Waterways

By Melissa Walsh

As a girl in the early 1970s, I hated wearing gym shoes on the beach of Lake St. Clair’s Gull Island. But with countless rusty beer cans washing ashore, my mother forbid me from playing on the beach barefoot.

Thanks to Michigan’s recycling program and improved environmental awareness among boaters, years later, I was able to enjoy feeling the sand beneath my bare feet.

However, other substantial pollution problems remained in the Great Lakes system, especially in Lake Erie, which was notoriously known as the “dead sea”of the Great Lakes. The shallowest of the Great Lakes fell victim to the pollutive effects of Detroit, Cleveland, and other heavily industrialized port cities.

I recall a summer in the late 1970s when my brother and I were prohibited from swimming in the waters around Put-in-Bay. My mother imposed the ban after we returned to the marina after a swim with our bodies covered in tiny black dots. By the mid-1980s, Lake Erie clean-up efforts led to the elimination of the Lake Erie sludge speckles. I know this anecdotally.

Ensuring that the Great Lakes cleanly reflect the blue sky, today’s marina managers and boaters are pursuing green. Supporting them, the American Boating Association Clean Boating Program delivers a plethora of information for responsible stewardship of the waters, breaking down tips for promoting clean waterways into prevention (of spillage), reduction (of debris), and protection (of wildlife).

Federal laws such as the Oil Pollution Act and Clean Water Act also are teeth forcing good habits among boaters in preventing fuel and oil discharge, detergent runoff, and waste spillage; reducing trash and debris in the waterways; and protecting fish, foul, and shoreline mammals from exposure to plastics and toxins in their habitats.

Because debris-removal protects fishery habitats, several communities around the Great Lakes are organizing grass-roots efforts to tackle the dirty job of fishing garbage from lake shorelines and rivers of the Great Lakes system, many using grants offered by the Boat U.S. Foundation and other organizations. Eriesponsible, for example, is a Lake Erie boat club working with marinas to clean up harbors and sponsoring beach cleanups with schools and other community organizations. The annual Nautical Coast Cleanup, organized by the St. Clair Shores Waterfront Environmental Committee and Jefferson Beach Yacht Club, gathers volunteers who have over the past 25 years removed more than 757 tons of debris from Lake St. Clair. Partners for Clean Streams is a Toledo-based organization hosting clean-up activities of six streams.

National organizations like National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the U.S. Department of Commerce fund sea grant programs aimed at reducing lake debris and contaminants that harm the ecosystem. For example, a NOAA Marine Debris Prevention Grant recently funded Lake Erie environmental advocates in launching a Skip-the-Straw campaign on South Bass Island and its Village of Put-in-Bay, where more than 800,000 boaters and tourists visit each year.

In 2016, the University of Wisconsin Sea Grant supported community activities to remove derelict fishing gear, or “ghost-nets,” from Lake Superior. The ghost nets not only threatened marine life and water foul; they also were hazardous to non-commercial fishermen.

Sarah Orlando, who oversees the Ohio Clean Marinas and Clean Boater programs, supported by the Ohio Sea Grant and the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, says, “Regardless of what type of boater you are, there are always ways to be proactive and improve what you’re doing for the lakes.”

Working with power boaters, sailors, and paddlers in ridding the waterways of debris and trash, Orlando urges green practices, such as switching from throw-away cups, bottles, and utensils to reusable forms of these items. She also educates marina managers and boaters in best practices for reducing pollutants, certifying them as clean marinas or clean boaters after specified requirements are met.

By 2019, 79 Ohio marinas were certified as “clean,” and more than 2,700 registered boaters were committed to the clean-boating pledge.

“What’s been eye-opening for me,” says Orlando, “when I talk to (marina managers) about why they want to join, they know it’s the right thing to do. … More and more, they know its good business to have clean water.”

Bay Point Resort and Marina in Marblehead, Ohio, became the program’s first “platinum” clean marina in 2018.

Bay Point Assistant General Manager Mark Gallavan says, “We have 805 boat slips here, so that is 805 families that are more aware of clean boating initiatives.”

Bay Point boaters are taking the clean boating pledge promoted in marina signage and newsletters.

“Before 2017, it was never really talked about, Gallavan says, “So those who have taken the pledge are really positive about it.”

The most difficult measure in clean-marina services, Gallavan says, is running shrink-wrap recycling, recommending marinas invest time in understanding the processes and tasks required.

Wisconsin Clean Marinas Coordinator Theresa Qualls, who works with the Wisconsin Sea Grant Water Quality and Coastal Communities program, says, “You do see improvement in the marinas, and it definitely is a positive step in the education component of boaters. They provide tips sheets and they post new signs to inform the boaters, and boaters really seem to be receptive to it and want to do their part.

“Once they’re aware of the problem and know what to do, they seem more than willing to step up and do it.”

Qualls certifies as “clean” marinas those which have adopted the program’s best management practices, or BMPs, which include boater education in clean-boating habits.

Other BMPs are met by installing a rain garden for managing storm water run-off, creating pet-waste stations, enforcing filtering of boat-wash residue, offering recycling services, and making boaters aware of invasive species in Lake Michigan and what to do about them.

Orlando, who speaks to power squadrons and boat clubs about taking the clean-boating pledge says, “They (boaters) want to help. The question is, ‘How can we help and what’s the best way?’”

After all, no boater wants to step on a rusty can on a beach or become covered in sludge residue from a dip in the lake.