Bay boaters this summer will be reminded that not only can their trash kill, but that anyone dumping debris overboard may be subject to huge fines and even jail terms under international law.

The Center for Marine Conservation, operating under an EPA grant, has launched pilot boater education campaigns off the coast of New Jersey and in the Annapolis area of the Chesapeake Bay to improve awareness of the 1987 international MARPOL (short for marine pollution) Protocol.

The debris-dumping restrictions of the international agreement were formally enacted as U.S. law in 1988.

The law restricts the overboard disposal of all kinds of trash. Plastics may not be dumped anywhere in U.S. waters. The dumping of other garbage overboard is restricted, depending on how far one is from shore. The closer to shore, the tighter the restrictions.

In all U.S. bays, rivers, and lakes, and within 3 miles offshore in the ocean, all garbage dumping is prohibited.

"What the law means to boaters on the Chesapeake Bay is that no plastics or garbage can go overboard — none," said Margaret Podlich, who oversees the project for CMC. "A lot of people are surprised by that."

The campaign will help educate boaters about the many aspects of the law which they may not know about. For example, boats that are 26 feet or longer must have a placard prominently posted to notify passengers and crew of discharge restrictions and penalties. Boats 40 feet or longer must have a written waste management plan.

As part of the project, CMC will distribute fact sheets, posters, brochures, placards, and other materials at marinas, boat shows, and during talks to boating groups and at other events.

CMC is also stressing why the law is important: Debris can not only foul propellers and clog seawater intakes on boats, but is responsible for the deaths of tens of thousands of marine animals each year as they become entangled in or ingest litter, particularly plastics.

A second part of the CMC effort is to train a "citizen pollution patrol," which will boost the enforcement efforts of the Coast Guard by providing additional eyes to witness violations. Podlich said the patrol is not a network of boaters spying on boaters. Rather, it is an effort to educate citizens who may spot illegal dumping so they can gather information needed to make a useful report. Necessary information includes the location of the incident, boat description and registration number, and a description of the debris.

"You have to actually witness someone throwing something overboard," Podlich said. Just seeing trash floating near a boat does not prove anything. "We don't know if it came down a storm drain or if it came off a boat," she said.

CMC is the nation's largest conservation organization dedicated to protecting marine wildlife and their habitats, and to conserving coastal and ocean resources.

People who would like more information about the project may contact Podlich at (202) 429-5609.


Highlights of the MARPOL treaty

Annex V of the MARPOL Treaty is a new international law for a cleaner, safer marine environment.

Under it and other laws, it is illegal for any vessel to dump plastic trash anywhere in the ocean or navigable waters of the United States. Dumping other materials is strictly regulated. What can be dumped depends on how close a vessel is to the shore. Dumping in bays and lakes is strictly limited.

Each violation of these requirements may result in civil penalty up to $25,000, a fine up to $50,000, and imprisonment up to 5 years.

In all U.S. lakes, rivers, bays, sounds and up to 3 miles from shore:

It is illegal to dump plastic, garbage, paper, metal, rags, crockery, glass, dunnage (lining & packing materials that float) or food.

From 3 to 12 miles offshore:

It is illegal to dump plastic or dunnage. Also, paper, crockery, rags, metal, glass and food may not be dumped unless they are ground to less than one inch.

From 12 to 15 miles offshore:

It is illegal to dump plastic or dunnage.

Outside 25 miles:

It is illegal to dump plastic.

State and local laws may further regulate garbage disposal.