Stop Recreational Boaters From Polluting Cortes Islands Protected Areas

By Roy L Hales

There are good reasons that boaters are not allowed to dump chemicals, sewage and other debris in Carrington Bay, Cortes Bay, Gorge Harbour, Squirrel Cove, or Manson’s Landing. “[Cortes Island] has the best oysters in the area, [possibly] because it is supposed to have such pristine clean water,” says Julia Rendall, President of the 13 member Bee Islets Growers Corporation. She explained that violations “could close us down and if we are closed down I think we have to have three tests, three weeks in a row, clear. So it could, in theory, close you down for about a month.” Cortes Island’s unique environmental features resulted in the creation of  several marine parks. Contamination is a concern for all islanders, whether they are shellfish harvesters or not. These areas are currently designated as “No Discharge Zones” under federal regulations. Never-the-less, violations periodically do occur and a recent incident illustrates the difficulties of trying to stop recreational boaters from polluting Cortes Islands protected areas.

The Incident at Manson’s Landing

The most recent incident occurred last month. A community member had difficulty driving onto the dock at Manson’s Landing because of lines strung across the access route. Jenny Hartwick, Harbour Manager for the Harbour Authority of Cortes Island (HACI), was in the neighbouring village when she heard about the incident. Proceeding to the dock, she found two sailboats tied up.

“One [was] on either side of the main wharf approach. They had run large cables from the very top of their mast to the opposite side of the railing, effectively creating a large wire X right about face height as you tried to make your way down the gangway,” says Hartwick.

“First of all, that dock is used by several community organizations as well as the Coast Guard (for emergency evacuations). One of our policies is that we have to keep that approach clear. So, I went up to the individuals and said, ‘Hey guys, you are blocking this. We need to have it open.’ At which point in time, I noticed they were involved in cleaning and applying bottom paint to one of the sailboats. Now there is a bit of a grey area when it comes to the legality of applying bottom paints and cleaning your boats, but the general policy — especially in that area, given that it is a provincial park — is that it is not allowed. Definitely not the way they were doing it, so I asked them to please stop what they were doing and leave.”

Hartwick is a petite, five foot tall, woman. When the boaters did not comply, she called in the provincial park’s caretaker. He discovered another problem.

“Not only had they been cleaning their boat and applying bottom paint, they had been applying bottom paint to the rocks and everything in the surrounding area … They didn’t have any drop sheets down or anything to collect spillage …  It was all covering the foreshore underneath their boat. So the caretaker provided them with some shovels and garbage bags, and asked them to please clean up the mess they had made. Which they did, to the best of my knowledge, and the tide came in and they departed.”

The Incident In Gorge Harbour

View from the government dock looking towards the 150 rafts of the Bee Islet Lease (just below the far shore), one of several aquaculture leases in the Gorge – Roy L Hales photo

Hartwick thought the incident was over, until she received a phone call and several emails the following day. The boaters hadn’t left Cortes. They simply relocated to the government dock in Gorge Harbour. This is the island’s principal oyster growing area, with 500 rafts and six or seven beach leases. The copper based paint the boaters were most likely using is a biocide designed to “destroy or inhibit the growth or activity of living organisms.” Though still used in Canada, copper based paints may soon be banned in Washington state.[1]

"A slurry of copper paint, running down into the ocean" at Gorge Harbour
“A slurry of copper paint, running down into the ocean” close to the Bees Islet (aquaculture) Lease at Gorge Harbour – photo courtesy David Niklena, Director of the Harbour Authority Cortes Island.

“They may say that it is a safe paint they are using, but you never really know,” says Rendall.

“When I was walking down towards the government dock, I saw they were clearly scrapping off the copper bottom paint on their boat. There was a slurry of copper paint running down into the ocean. So we had a few words about that not being an allowable use of the area,” says David Niklena, one of HACI’s Directors.

They could not leave at that moment. The tide was out, and their  boats sat high and dry. They did not float out until the following day.

“I am pretty sure they carried on cleaning and scrapping their boat. There wasn’t much I was going to be able to do about it.:

The Legalities

He adds, “I’m pretty sure it is against Federal law to clean your bottom paint directly into the ocean.

Click on illustration above to access the brochure

After a seemingly fruitless search of the internet, Hartwick found a reference posted on the Georgia Strait Alliance website. On the bottom of page 13, of the Guide To Green Boating, it says: 

“Under the federal Fisheries Act, the water and residue from washing, scraping and sanding your bottom is considered a deleterious substance. It is a criminal offence to release deleterious substances into waters frequented by fish, with penalties up to $1 million and 3 years in prison.”

Only this little known law is not enforced.

“The onus really seems to be on the boater to know the regulations … There is very little requirement put in place to ensure that the boaters actually know the regulations. It’s a case of, ‘here’s the brochure, please read it” –  but then there is no recourse for not reading that,” says Hartwick.

“I know that there are organizations that will address those issues when they see them happening, or when they are reported. There are fantastic environmental reporting numbers that you can call: DFO; Environment Canada; Transport Canada; the Coast Guard. So there are lots of resources available in our area. Unfortunately once you’ve made that phone call, there is not necessarily going to be an immediate response. In the cases of environmental spills or someone getting to close to a whale, once that incident is over it is very hard to prove that it may have taken place.”

Is This An Isolated Incident?

While this is the first time she has caught someone in the act, Hartwick believes many people probably paint their boats improperly.

“It is the nature of boating on our coast that boats need to be cleaned … The most simple and effective way of dealing with growth is to apply a product to the bottom of your boat. While I don’t think the style of cleaning [utilized at Mansons Landing and the Gorge] is common, I don’t doubt that contamination occurs,” says Hartwick.

Lund – Roy L Hales photo

“The correct way of cleaning your boat nowadays is to have it hauled to a [facility like] Jack’s boatyard in Lund.  Have it brought out on their ways, taken to an upland location where it can be pressure washed, sanded, and cleaned with drop cloths underneath so all the contamination is collected. So there is no risk of runoff entering the ocean again and the residue from cleaning your boat can be properly disposed of in a licensed facility.”

“In smaller communities, for example where we live, that’s a lot harder to do. People pull their boat out on their trailer and scrape their boat in their yard. People go swimming in the water and clean their boat that way.”

Disposing of Raw Sewage

In addition to painting, there is also a problem with boaters discharging their black and grey water directly into the ocean. According to the legal requirement, they should go three miles offshore. This is especially true in protected areas, like Manson’s Landing and Gorge Harbour.

“In our area it is pretty hard to get three nautical miles offshore, if not impossible. So you are required to use an onshore pump-house location. They are few and far between on the coast. There is one in Lund and another in Campbell River,” says Hartwick.

Violations have occurred in Gorge Harbour.

A boat passing by Cortes Island – Roy L Hales photo

“I am aware of bilges being emptied. I have had to stop harvesting, myself, because there was a big oil slick all around the lease. Somebody  just pumped out their bilge as they were going out of the bay. So that meant we just didn’t harvest that day. You have an order to meet but can’t do it! So it was kind of annoying,” adds Rendall.

Hartwick says water samples taken at Mansons Landing [either] last year, or the year before, showed a high degree of contamination which has been linked to the number of boaters in the area.

Resident Boats In The Gorge

“Environment Canada does come up and monitor the water, testing for fecal coliform, four times a year and they usually do testing for a couple of consecutive days. They do that on every tenure on the Gorge and I think they do it in every tenure around the coast. This is what [enables us to keep] our good quality rating. But resident boats are anchored full time in the Gorge,” says Niklena.

“Several years ago [Environment Canada] decided to close down the Western end of the Gorge – that would be west of the marina — for a ten week period during the summer, starting July 1. That wasn’t as a result of pollution, that was a result of the potential for pollution. They have also done closures of a 125 metre diameter around specific boats that are known to [have] full time residents. [Environment Canada] feels that they do not have sufficient information about how the discharge of waste is being carried out. So they certainly err on the side of caution.”

Moving Towards Boating Responsibly

The dock at Manson’s Landing – Roy L Hales photo

He adds, “There are no discharge areas, and the Gorge Harbour is one of those. I’m not sure how many years that’s been, I’m sure it has been twenty years, but you can see that just because you put up a sign and make a regulation … that doesn’t give the government officials confidence that it is being carried out as it could be.”

“I really do not think these individuals were out to pollute the marine environment. They had a boat needing some work, heard of a beach where they could do it without being bothered,” says Hartwick.

“I think that part of what needs to happen is the dissemination of knowledge within the boating community. While those types of actions may have occurred more often in the past,  there is a growing level of awareness within the boating community, and the community as a whole, that those actions are incredibly environmentally harmful. There is a movement towards boating responsibly and an unofficial boating code of conduct that really highlights the use of appropriate facilities — which are becoming more and more available.”

Stop Small Boaters From Polluting

Looking from Mansons Landing towards the mountains of Vancouver island (& Campbell River) – Roy L Hales photo

“Certainly raising awareness about the effects of this is good. Our local seafood association did publish a little boaters information sheet years ago and I think it continues to get distributed. [We are] trying to connect people to the boaters activities and the shellfish aquaculture that is in the area and the fact we are all sharing the water,” adds Hartwick.

“We wrote to several yacht clubs, like the Seattle Yacht Club, the Vancouver Yacht Club, just to say we are an aquaculture zone and would they please tell their members to refrain from dumping sewage and emptying their bilges when travelling around Cortes,” says Rendall.

Vancouver Yacht Club Obtains Green Status

Smelt Bay on Cortes Island - Roy L Hales photo
Smelt Bay on Cortes Island – Roy L Hales photo

“The Royal Vancouver Yacht Club outstation in Cortes Bay just received their Green Marine status …  ‘They’ve had to meet a variety of environmental regulations and also have had an inspection. The Georgia Strait Alliance sent someone out to look through the entire facility and make sure it is up to snuff,” says Hartwick, who also looks after the outstation.

“It is a multi-tiered inspection that looks at everything from garbage recycling facilities, storage of hazardous materials, how they landscape, are their areas that have been left natural, down to the kinds of lighting and the cleaning products used. [Even] the types of flotation devices used on their docks! That can all be found on the Green Marine website. 

Habitat For Native Birds

One of the categories, providing habitat for native birds, has also been adopted by HACI. There are swallow and purple martin nesting boxes at the yacht club. Similar boxes are set up at all five docks managed by HACI. “Right now you can see the little heads peeking out, yelling at their moms that are busy flying around.” Hartwick remarked upon the feisty mom at Mansons and noted there are two nests at Squirrel Cove dock.

Times Are Changing

This kind of program is an important step towards protecting Cortes Island’s No Discharge Zones.

Two sailboats tied up at the Mansons Landing dock on July 8, 2018 – Roy L Hales photo

“The Green Marine brochure is fantastic and, to me, it really highlighted all the potential sources of pollution that boaters might not be aware of — at all. The shampoo that you use, even if it is biodegradable, [that] doesn’t mean it is environmentally friendly or be a good thing to put back into the ocean. The same thing with your dish detergents. Just because it has a nice green sticker on it doesn’t mean it is the right choice when you know you are going to be  dumping directly into the ocean. The same thing with your bilge water. It is a fantastic brochure that really breaks down and highlights some very simple changes that can ensure they are being environmentally responsible when they are out on the water,” says Hartwick.


Another view of the two sailboats at Manson's Landing on July 8 (photo was underdeveloped and color enhanced to bring out detail) - Roy L Hales photo
Another view of two sailboats at Manson’s Landing (photo was underdeveloped and color enhanced to bring out detail) – Roy L Hales photo

There is a postscript to this story. The sailboat incidents mentioned earlier occurred in June, 2018. On July 8, two new sailboats drew up on the ways beside the dock at Manson’s Landing. Their masts were also tied together by two cables,“effectively creating a large wire X” that anyone using the facility’s gangway would have to pass under. You can see a picture of it above. There is also a picture of what appears to be a woman spraying something onto one of the hulls. That evening they received a visit from Jenny Hartwick, who  informed them what they can and can’t do within the boundaries of Mansons Landing provincial park.


  1. Washington’s ban on antifouling copper paint went into effect on January 1, 2018, but was subsequently put on hold. According to an article in Marina Dock Age,  “On March 15, Washington’s governor signed a bill that delayed all phases of the ban until January 1, 2021. The new bill addresses other potentially harmful antifouling paints, not just copper, and the restrictions regarding copper paint would not apply to recreational boats with external hull surfaces constructed entirely of wood planks or sheets.”

Top Photo credit: Aquaculture trays, waiting to be deployed, beside the Government dock in the Gorge – Roy L Hales photo

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