Small Oil Spill Prevention in the San Juan Islands

Posted Wed, 10/12/2016 - 16:29
Guest post by MaryAnn Wagner of Washington Sea Grant.
A man holding a kit pillow that says "prevent small oil spills."
Seattle recreational boater Greg Mueller placing an absorbent oil spill prevention kit pillow in the engine bilge. (Lauren Drakopulos, Washington Sea Grant)

For more than 20 years, small oil spills prevention has been a hallmark of Washington Sea Grant work, but this summer marked the first-ever organized effort to directly educate Washington State recreational boaters. Washington Sea Grantteamed up with Washington State Parks in an effort that spanned the summer months and culminated in a week on San Juan Island, with staff talking to hundreds of suntanned recreational boaters.

This summer’s outreach was part of a three-year campaign, supported by the Washington State Department of Ecology, to educate boaters as far north as Friday Harbor. The team set up a booth on Friday Harbor Marina dock, where they handed out free small oil spill kits and shared tips on how boaters can easily prevent spills with a few simple precautions.

While on the docks, staff asked passing boaters what the biggest environmental threat posed by boaters might be.

“The biggest threat is the boaters themselves,” said Fred Adams, a boater from Waldron Island, WA.

Washington State is responding to a national call for more education on small oil spill pollution and its prevention. Washington is one of only a few states that focus on educating recreational boaters.

“Small oils spills, whether a cup, a gallon or just a few drops, add up to a huge water quality problem; it is death by a thousand tiny cuts. Over time, it all adds up,” said Washington Sea Grant’s boating specialist, Aaron Barnett.

The free kits, designed by Barnett, consist of an absorbent pillow and pad that fit snuggly under most small-vessel bilges.

“I put the pad under the engine and just leave it there. That’s just what you have to do,” said Joe Cann of San Juan Island, WA

The team handed out more than 200 pads and pillows in just a few days at the marina.  Next year, Barnett and team are planning a more expanded effort that will take them back to the San Juan Islands for another round and will include boaters and marina owners along popular lakes in Eastern Washington.

To order kits contact Washington Sea Grant’s Aaron Barnett at

MaryAnn Wagner is Assistant Director for Communications with Washington Sea Grant. Washington Sea Grant, based at the University of Washington, provides statewide marine research, outreach and education services. The National Sea Grant College Program is part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) U.S. Department of Commerce. Visit for more information or join the conversation @WASeaGrant on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.