You are here

Practice responsible recreation: Follow best boating techniques

Adaptation Strategies and Actions

Practice responsible recreation: Follow best boating techniques

Adaptation type: 
Recreation management and opportunties
Volunteer involvement


Reduce human impacts on marine species and habitats when boating

People use coastal ecosystems in a variety of ways, such as through commercial, residential, and recreational activities. Because of our reliance on the ocean, it is important to minimize our ecological footprint and prevent harmful ecological impacts whenever possible. 
Increasing temperatures, sea level rise, and ocean acidification due to climate change are causing stress and negative impacts on many marine species and habitats. These impacts are occurring and will continue to happen on a backdrop of existing human-caused stressors.

For example, recreational boating and other activities are a common way that invasive species are spread, typically through ballast tanks, propellers, and bilge systems. Furthermore, some conditions associated with climate change such as higher temperatures may benefit and promote the spread of invasive species 2. Improper boating techniques also can directly damage coastal habitat through physical contact with boats and associated gears. The stress caused by these and other human impacts will be exacerbated by climate change and put fish and wildlife at increased risk 4,16.

Although some stressors are out of the direct control of the everyday person, there are number of actions we can take to reduce our impact on coastal species and habitats.

Practicing environmentally responsible boating techniques can help reduce human impacts on marine ecosystems, increasing their resiliency and adaptive capacity to climate change and other stressors.


Clean boat propeller, bilge, and underbody before entering new bodies of water
Invasive species are commonly introduced to new habitats through transportation on various parts boats, such as the propeller and bilge. Many aquatic organisms such as mussels and snails can latch onto outer parts of boats, while smaller, microscopic organisms that can’t be seen with the human eye, can enter cracks and grooves of boat and motor hardware. Organisms can also enter boat hulls through the bilge, plug, or over the side. Invasive plants can also be easily transported by boats, and even boat trailers when launching the boat. Because invasive species can have negative impacts on ecosystems, especially when other stressors such as climate change are also at play, it is important to minimize transport of these species through proper cleaning of boats between water bodies and uses. Just remember, “clean, drain, dry”.

Invasive quagga mussels on propeller. (Source: NPS)
Invasive quagga mussels on propeller. (Source: NPS)

When exiting a water body, you can:

  • Inspect and clean all surfaces of your boat and trailer, removing all plants, mud, and other material
  • Properly drain the boat and outboard motor after use. Parking the boat on an incline and lowering the outboard motor will help ensure proper drainage
  • Feel for mud and vegetation along cracks and grooves along the hull, and remove
  • Clean and dry all boating equipment, including life jackets and personal belongings, using hot water if possible
  • If waders were used, clean them with hot water and a soap solution, or freeze overnight to remove aquatic organisms from soles (especially when using felt)

Don’t transport live fish (except for local bait)
Many invasive species have been established in new locations from transportation and release by anglers or aquarium fish owners.

In Massachusetts, and many other states, it is illegal to transport live fish for purposes other than bait. This is primarily to prevent the spread of invasive species into new bodies of water. Local bait fish are less of a concern because they occur in local estuaries.

Don’t damage bottom habitat while boating or fishing
Many fish rely on ocean floor habitat and structure for protection and survival. For example, appropriately sized sediment allows shellfish to attach or burry, while eel grass and sea grass beds provide hiding places and food for many juvenile fish. Rocky bottom habitats are also home to a number of fish and marine invertebrates.

While boating, it is important to reduce impacts on these habitats. Some ways to avoid damaging bottom habitat include:

  • Don’t use an anchor in sensitive bottom habitats
  • When available, use established moorings
  • Avoid bottom trawls for catching, purchasing, and consuming coastal fish
  • Avoid sensitive bottom habitat while fishing so hooks and weights don’t get snagged
  • Use care when harvesting shellfish and crabs
  • Don’t operate boats in shallow waters
Invasive zebra mussels. (Source: USGS)
Invasive zebra mussels. (Source: USGS)

Don’t dump your ballast
Ballast water is commonly used on large boats and vessels to increase stability and help with maneuvering. Ballast water is often drained and filled in coastal waters; tanks can often hold biological materials, such as plants, animals, viruses, and other microorganisms. Sometimes ballast tanks can include invasive species that were transported from far away distances. In fact, water ballast discharge is believed to be one of the leading sources of invasive species in the U.S. Common invasive species transported from ballast water include: zebra mussels, American comb jelly, Cholera, and toxic algae.

Invasive species transported across coastal waters can significantly alter food webs. Ballast water exchange is one management technique that reduce these impacts.

Ballast water exchange is the process of exchanging coastal water, which may be fresh water, salt water or brackish water, for mid-ocean water, typically 200 miles from land (ABS 2010). During this process, ballast tank water is flushed out and exchanged with open ocean water where unwanted organisms and pathogens are less numerous, and less likely to survive. While the majority of large vessels are capable of conducting ballast water exchange without structural modifications, there are challenges for small vessel owners, designers, and operators, such as incorrect tank pressurization and stability and maneuverability issues 1.

It is important to plan ahead to prevent ballast water discharge in nearshore zones in order to reduce additional human impacts on coastal ecosystems that can compound the growing impacts of climate change. Ballast water exchange may not always be plausible in open-ocean waters, and therefore occurs in nearshore zones 5. Therefore, whenever possible other ballast water treatment techniques should be used including filtration and decontamination via UV light and heat.

Scope and Constraints

One-time action
Ongoing action
Minimal or no cost
Municipal or county jurisdiction required
State jurisdiction required
National jurisdiction required


National Fish Wildlife Plants Climate Adaptation Strategy Goal 1: Conserve habitat, diversity, and connectivity
National Fish Wildlife Plants Climate Adaptation Strategy Goal 2: Manage species, habitats, ecosystem functions
National Fish Wildlife Plants Climate Adaptation Strategy Goal 3: Enhance capacity for management
National Fish Wildlife Plants Climate Adaptation Strategy Goal 7: Reduce non-climate stressors


1. American Bureau of Shipping (ABS). 2010. A Guide for Ballast Water Exchange. Houston, TX. pp. 78.

2. Driscoll, D.A., A. Felton, P. Gibbons, A.M. Felton, N.T. Munro and D.B. Lindenmaye. 2011. Priorities
in policy and management when existing biodiversity stressors interact with climate change.
Climatic Change. pp 1-25.

3. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). 2016. Ballast Water and Aquatic Invasive Species. National Service Center for Environmental Publications.

4. Michelle D. Staudinger, Nancy B. Grimm, Amanda Staudt, Shawn L. Carter, F. Stuart Chapin III, Peter Kareiva, Mary Ruckelshaus, Bruce A. Stein. 2012. Impacts of Climate Change on Biodiversity, Ecosystems, and Ecosystem Services: Technical Input to the 2013 National Climate Assessment. Cooperative Report to the 2013 National Climate Assessment. 296 p. Available at:

5. Miller, A.W., M.S. Minton, and G.M. Ruiz. 2011. Geographic Limitations and Regional Differences in Ships’ Ballast Water Management to Reduce Marine Invasions in the Contiguous United States. Bioscience 61: 880-887.

6. NOAA: Ballast Water- A Pathway for Aquatic Invasive Species

7. USGS: USGS Targets Tiny Stowaways in Ships’ Ballast Water

8. Clean Water Action: Keeping Invasive Species Out- Better Ballast Water Standards

9. Massachusetts DCR: Prevent the spread of Zebra Mussels.

10. USGS: Ecosystems- Invasive Species.

11. Massachusetts Fish and Wildlife: General Fishing Regulations.

12. Massachusetts Boat and Recreation Vehicle Safety Bureau: Massachusetts Boating Law Summary

13. EPA: Boating should be good clean fun

14. National Park Service: Help Stop Aquatic Invasive

15. Marine Conservation Institute: Destructive Fishing

16. Staudt A, Leidner AK, Howard J, et al. 2013. The added complications of climate change: understanding and managing biodiversity and ecosystems. Front Ecol Environ 11: 494–501.

Click link above to view references.

My Favorites

Show my favoritesHide my favorites

More info

Bookmark your favorite pages here. See the "add this page link" to add a page to your favorites. Click the X to remove a page from the list.