Working with Boaters and Marine Trades for Cleaner Washington Water

Taking a Closer Look at Copper as Phase Out Nears

Copper. The reddish metal that you may remember from the periodic chart has kept a vigilant presence in boating since the 18th century when the British Royal Navy adhered copper plates to their hulls to protect them from shipworms and other marine growth. Copper has worked so well that it remains in most of the bottom paint you will find on store shelves.

Copper, like tributyl tin (which was phased out in 1988) and zinc, is known as a biocide. “Bio” means “life” and “cide” means “killing.” Copper may be a victim of its own success. While it’s great at killing life on your hull, paint can leach into its environment.

“Even in extremely small concentrations, copper is a dangerous pollutant for marine life, especially our salmon. In many cases, it’s even more toxic than lead,” said Chris Wilke, executive director of the Puget Soundkeeper Alliance. He’s been looking at this issue for years and came to the same conclusion that Northwest Marine Trade Association arrived at in 2011 — that copper should be phased out of paint.

A 2007 study from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration found that copper disrupts a young salmon’s ability to smell. According to the study, salmon swimming through dissolved copper lose the ability to smell their prey. Salmon also use their sense of smell to locate food, find their home stream, and reproduce.

“If we know that copper is bad, and if we know that boatyards are continually struggling to make the benchmarks in their boatyard permit, why not try an approach that addresses the pollutant at its source? For us, that was looking at the paint in the can and not copper at the end of the pipe,” said Jim Brown, chair of the Clean Boating Foundation board and one of the original core members of the group that put forward legislation to phase out copper-bottom paint.

Washington state’s Department of Ecology has scrutinized copper on industrial sights for decades. When it comes to the state’s 69 boatyards, they are scored by how much copper and zinc is found in water samples taken during a storm. Any more than 147 parts per billion of copper in a sample exceeds the benchmark. If that happens twice during the five-year permit, the boatyard must take corrective action, which can cost tens of thousands of dollars for engineering reports and the purchase and upkeep of a filtration device. Keep in mind that 147 parts per billion is next to nothing. To put this amount is perspective, it is equivalent to 3 drops of food coloring within 50,000 liters of water.

When it came to the legislation, Senate Bill 5436, which passed in 2011, made Washington the first state to adopt non-copper paint guidelines: No new recreational boat up to 65 feet can arrive with copper on its hull starting in Jan. 1, 2018, and no copper can be sold or applied to a boat after Jan. 1, 2020. This law only applies to boats in Washington. Also, these upcoming dates are not retroactive, meaning that is legal to have copper on your boat after these dates, it just cannot be applied or sold after January 1, 2020. Plus, it is permissible for non-copper paint to cover copper paint with this new law.

But the bill will only apply to recreational boats up to 65 feet, raising the question of why only a portion of boats have been targeted.

“While we had some things going in our advantage for this legislation, the team that brought this forward had other disadvantages we had to account for. In particular, while copper is bad regardless of whether it’s on a yacht or a freighter, our core group did not have needed support to have this legislation apply to all sectors. Also, the boatyard permit pays special attention to regulating boats up to 65 feet, which falls within the NMTA membership. We went to Olympia unified around the best bill we could muster with the hope that other marine stakeholders and other states would join in. As they say in Olympia, ‘perfect is the enemy of good.’ While this bill was not perfect, it was a good one,” said George Harris, NMTA president.

The bill brought together diverse interest groups around a common conundrum: cleaning up Puget Sound while not employing heavy-handed regulations that would create a death spiral for any one sector. Also, paint companies that provided products for recreational boats would need time to research and produce paints that worked in the unique climate of Washington.

“We have a couple of things going in our advantage that made this bill possible. First, there had been a history of our industry and environmental groups working together for clean water. Second, because of the cold waters here, we don’t see the level of marine growth found in other areas. Third, we had a reason to move this legislation forward because the boatyard permit mandates that copper keeps getting harder and harder to have in your samples. Fourth, we had the right mix of legislators and interest groups coming together in unison, shouting that clean water matters,” said Bill Youngsman, then-chair of the Northwest Marine Trade Association.

Wilke, of the Puget Soundkeeper Alliance, said, “In order to protect our waters and the natural resources that we enjoy, we must move away from the most harmful chemicals and pollutants, especially when suitable alternatives exist.”

It’s not just the environmental community and boating industry that welcomed this chance.

Bill Dewey of Taylor Shellfish Farms was pleasantly surprised with the leadership of NMTA on this issue. “There’s no confusion that nasty chemicals like copper and oysters don’t mix. Typically, our partners when we work on addressing pollution sources are environmental groups not organizations like NMTA whose members may be contributing to the problem. We applaud the industry’s leadership to address copper bottom paint. What a great example for their counterparts around the country. Hopefully others will follow their lead.”

Alternative paints already exist. As the key dates of the legislation approach, more and more success stories are popping up. Bremerton Yacht Club, for one, has made a complete transition to non-copper paint.

“You can only buy non-copper paint in our club store,” said Don Floyd, lead volunteer at Bremerton Yacht Club. Floyd said only about one out of 50 boats have had a problem with non-copper paints.

“We have seen very few issues with these non-copper paints. Plus, it has helped us comply with the boatyard permit so we can continue to operate,” he said.

Others share Floyd’s optimism. Bob Ranzenbach, a power-boater and member of the Seattle Yacht Club, applied non-copper paint in 2012 and is now a “true believer” in its attributes. “I was completely surprised and impressed by my experience.”

If you ask some paint companies, they are planning for this phase-out with eyes wide open.

Tony Bulpin from Sea Hawk Paint and a regular contributor to Northwest Yachting has spent considerable time on this subject in recent years. He said the boating public needs to know that these new paints work well but are different from conventional ones.

“Boaters can’t be expected to have the same experience and lifecycle as they are having with the current copper-based paints,” he said.

“There’s a reason that boaters like copper. Taking out this chemical is going to have an effect, and our responsibility is to minimize the risk to get boaters what they ultimately need and want: a clean bottom. Sea Hawk has the product and is working on other products, but changing a boater’s behavior can be a challenge,” Bulpin said.

He added that boaters should know that their products do exceptionally well with hard growth and barnacles, but they should not be surprised if they see soft growth and slime when the boat is pulled.

But not everyone is completely sold on non-copper paints.

“While it’s the correct thing for us to do, I worry that with too many bad experiences people may get out of boating,” said Scott Anderson of CSR Marine. Anderson co-owns the two CSR boatyards, enjoys sailing and cruising, and serves on the board of the 101-year-old schooner Adventuress.

“Do I understand why we need to make this change? Yes. Am I ecstatic about it? No, but it’s the law, so we are going to do everything we can to make (this change) a success”

While the expectation was that other states would join Washington with a phase-out of copper-bottom paint, new laws have not yet been adopted elsewhere in the U.S. California looked to have the most momentum before Washington’s law and has most recently taken up the issue once again. Instead of legislative action, it is looking at regulatory changes, focusing on leach rates and impaired water bodies. Marina del Rey, Newport Beach and Shelter Bay near San Diego have all received the attention of California’s clean-water agency.

Because copper levels are not in compliance with federal standards in these three places, the agency is considering a reduction plan that could force boaters to use copper-free paint, according to a 2015 article in the Los Angeles Times. Under the proposal, copper levels in Newport Bay would have to be reduced 83% in the next 15 years to comply with their clean water regulations.

“Getting California to join us would be a real game-changer. Our concern is that Washington is such a small fish in a big pond,” said Brown, of the Clean Boating Foundation. Washington ranks 24th in the country in boat registrations, with 240,000 of the United States’ 6 million boats.

“Once other states see that viable options exist, paint companies will even be that much more encouraged to get non-copper paints onto the shelves,” he said.

Another part of the law that is receiving scrutiny is how to test chemicals in these new paints. The law stipulated that alternative chemicals be evaluated beginning in January 2017. Northwest Green Chemistry has started assessing with the support of boating businesses, boaters and the NMTA.

“The last thing we want to see happen is a regrettable substitution, where the replacements contain chemicals even worse than copper,” said Dr. Amelia Nestler, Northwest Green Chemistry’s project manager. “We are not dictating which products to use, but we are producing a selection guide to help boaters choose the best option for their boating needs and for Puget Sound.”

Nestler has shown the ability to innovate as she goes along, according to many of those participating in the alternatives assessment process.

“CSR suggested that they see which of these non-copper paints actually work. Amelia said that it wasn’t part of their original plan but have displayed a willingness to adjust their testing to accommodate our request,” said Anderson, of CSR Marine.

Many boating businesses have appreciated Northwest Green Chemistry’s openness and transparency. Nestler credits that to their desire to get this assessment right.

“This alternative assessment is the first one of its kind. There are few things we already know in the first months of this process: No other spot in the world has a phase-out of copper-bottom paint, which means that boaters around the globe are watching what we are doing here to get both the test and the phase-out right,” she said.

All of the Northwest Green Chemistry’s meetings are public, and boaters are encouraged to email Nestler directly ( if they want play a role in the study.

What formally began in 2011 with the passage of the non-copper paint law has led many boaters to look at other practices that could both help boatyards comply with the permit issued by Department of Ecology and clean up water.

“Taking care of the environment is a never-ending process. Paint has received a lot of attention for good reason, but boaters should do more than just switch paints. Boatyards are also scored on the zinc that comes off of their yards. A simple solution here would be to switch to aluminum anodes. Marinas can consider moving to zinc-free marine bumpers, too,” said Nestler.

Brown believes boaters are environmentalists. “It’s not like we go out on the water wondering how many ways we can pollute. If we weren’t into nature, we would spend our time on the couch. That said, because we use the environment to have fun we have a responsibility to take care of our surroundings. Sometimes that means making changes and of those changes on the horizon is switching to less toxic paint.”

Chris Wilke agrees. “I am proud that Washington is now a leader in the effort to protect our waterways from toxic pollution. The move away from copper bottom paint shows one way that boaters and the maritime industry are doing their part. Progress is difficult sometimes, but if we can save our salmon, it will be great for everyone — especially boaters, fishermen and anyone who enjoys the water.”

NMTA’s president had another idea to ensure that these new paints work.

“Boats are like muscles,” Harris said. “If you don’t use them, they turn to mush. Use your boat and good things happen. If your boat just sits in the marina, of course it’s going to grow nasty stuff. Chances are that it won’t just be your boat’s bottom that needs to be cleaned, too. I’ve always found that the more I use my boat, the better it operates.”

(Author’s note: I was the lead lobbyist on the passage of this legislation and have worked with boaters and boatyards to move forward with non-copper paint as part of my role with the Clean Boating Foundation.)