In the U.S. alone, there are more than 12.5 million boats. From small fishing boats on inland lakes and rivers to giant cruise ships and yachts sailing the high seas, Americans love their boats. After all, a day on the water, with the wind in your hair and the sun on your face is an enjoyable pastime.
Unfortunately, it isn't great for the environment. Every time we take a boat out on to the water, it contributes to environmental harm.
It might not seem like it at the time, but putting modern boats into the water has an incremental effect on the environment - and over time, those tiny impacts can add up to big damage. In fact, once you realize what kind of damage your boat is doing, there's a good chance you'll want to donate your boat to a charity and take up a less damaging hobby.
Coastal Erosion and Other Damage
Whenever you use your boat, you create a wake - and in many coastal, river, and estuary environments, wake waves are a major contributor to shoreline erosion. This is most common in areas where the waters don't see much wave action and tend to be calmer and more tranquil, such as remote rivers and lakes. Wakes aren't as much of a contributor to erosion in many coastal areas where there is significant wave activity or regular flooding, but if you are boating through quiet waters, over time the waves created by your vessel can do a great deal of damage to the shore.
In addition to coastal erosion, boats can disturb and damage other delicate ecosystems in the water. Boats anchors, for instance, are a leading cause of damage to coral reefs. You might think that it's only larger cruise ships and freighters that are causing damage, but smaller boats anchoring on reefs are also a problem. Not only are the reefs themselves damaged, in some cases, irreparably, but anchoring on reefs and in other shallow areas can upset the balance in sea grasses and other habitats for aquatic species.
Pollution is another significant environmental concern when it comes to boating. Not only are there the obvious concerns about harmful chemicals, including gas and oil, entering waterways, but many boats also leach small amounts of other toxic chemicals into the water, such as zinc and mercury, which can have a detrimental effect on water quality.
For example, many boat owners treat their vessels with antifouling to prevent barnacles, mussels, and other sea life from attaching to the bottom of the boat and causing friction, which reduces fuel efficiency. Although the regulations regarding the content of antifouling agents have been significantly tightened over the years, the newer agents are also harmful. Not only do they kill living organisms on the vessel, but they also leach into the ecosystem, causing harm to wildlife.
Boating can have a significant impact on water quality in other ways, as well. Waterways that have a lot of boat traffic have higher levels of sediment and algae growth due to the constant churning of the water. These higher levels limit the amount of sunlight and oxygen in the water, inhibiting the growth of healthy organisms and changing wildlife habitats.
Boating can have other serious effects on wildlife beyond disturbing habitats. Chemicals in the water from boats can seriously harm or kill delicate species. Some animals have even seen their numbers decline significantly as a direct result of boats. Manatees, for example, have seen their numbers drop precipitously since boaters have taken over the shallow waters they call home. Many manatees have met their deaths due to run-ins with propellers, despite regulations calling for caution.
Boaters have also been known to change wildlife behaviors. In areas where boating is common and humans interact with wildlife (such as coral reefs were individuals feed animals to draw them closer) many fish have changed their behaviors, often becoming more aggressive. That is, if the fish even stick around; in some high traffic areas, the native species of wildlife have all but disappeared.
Boating is undoubtedly enjoyable, but it's also important to consider the long-term impacts of the activity. Changes to water quality can affect our ability to access clean drinking water, and the risks to wildlife can't be overstated. It's still possible to enjoy the great outdoors, but perhaps it's best to choose less harmful activities.