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The whine of the man sanding the boat cut across the shores of San Diego Bay. Clouds of dust flew loose, drifting toward the water below.

Gale Filter, the executive director of San Diego Coastkeeper, a local environmental group, raised the camera strapped to his chest and started firing.

Once a week since last July, Filter has gone out on the group’s small boat, sliding quietly through the waters of local marinas. And each week, he says he’s seen similar problems. A boat being dismantled in the water, allowing debris to seep into the bay. Painters flicking their brushes. And plenty of people sanding off paint with nothing in place to catch the dust.

What he’s seen is illegal. State law prohibits anyone from allowing what it terms “deleterious material” — bad stuff — to go into the water. But each week, Filter says he sees it happening.

“This is the death by 1,000 cuts,” Filter says. “Every time we go out, we find a violation. That’s unbelievable. If you buy a boat, you should have the responsibility of taking care of it in the proper way. You have a culture to turn around.”

Boat paint contains copper, which by design leaches out to prevent barnacles from building up on hulls. But the copper from paint can accumulate in sediment and kill creatures like young fish, starfish and mussels. Scientists have found harmful levels of copper throughout San Diego Bay and the marinas lining its shores. It’s one of many pollution problems facing the bay, which for decades served as a dumping ground for toxic chemicals and raw sewage.

Copper in the bay has attracted the attention of regulators and lawmakers alike. The Unified Port of San Diego is under state orders to reduce the amount of copper going into the Shelter Island Yacht Basin. State Sen. Christine Kehoe, D-San Diego, has pushed legislation to phase copper out of hull paint.

While most copper found in the bay comes from leaching paint, boat owners are supposed to use tarps to prevent paint or sawdust from getting into the water or to do the work while the boat is out of the water. That doesn’t always happen.

Marinas play a role, too. They’re voluntarily supposed to ensure boat owners take the proper precautions to keep pollution out of the bay when they’re doing repair work.

Filter said some marinas do that well and others don’t. He said he’s seen the most problems at Driscoll’s Wharf in Point Loma. “It’s just a nightmare,” he said. On the day we cruised through it, we saw paint flakes dangling off one barnacle-covered boat whose name, High Roller, was partly obscured by rust. A message left with the marina wasn’t returned by deadline.

Filter lauded the Sunroad Resort Marina on Harbor Island as a model for others. Jim Behun, the marina’s general manager, said he tries to be selective about which boats he allows into its 610 slips. Behun said he and an assistant dockmaster walk the marina and talk to boat owners if they’re doing improper work. It’s an ongoing outreach effort, he said.

“You clean up the issue before it even happens,” he said. “We’re maybe more proactive than some other marinas, and if there is an issue, we jump right on it.”

David Gibson, executive officer of the San Diego Regional Water Quality Control Board, the local water pollution regulator, said the port should be ensuring that boat owners don’t perform illegal maintenance in the water.

“Any one boat owner may say it’s not a big deal, but when you have 3,000 owners thinking the same thing, you have a much larger issue,” Gibson said.

The port conducts annual inspections of marinas and other waterfront businesses but rarely issues fines or citations for pollution violations, handing out two fines (for $250 and $600) and five citations last year. But two of its environmental officials pledged to investigate Filter’s concerns.

Karen Holman, the port’s manager of environmental programs, said her agency had contacted Filter to learn where he’d seen problems and called his patrols a help. She said port staff would check on the problems Filter found — including the rusty High Roller.

“We want to see a clean bay and clean marinas,” Holman said. “If there’s way we can focus and improve, the more we can learn about that, the better our program can be.”

Filter said he’s also shared information about the problems he’s found with Ken Franke, a former Harbor Patrol officer who’s now president of the Sportfishing Association of California. Franke said he’s included reminders about the law in routine notices sent to the local fleet and made friendly reminders when he walks through San Diego’s marinas. He said any efforts to curtail improper maintenance should focus on educating boat owners, not citing them.

“You’re going to find most of the time it’s a matter of people not knowing what they’re doing is wrong,” Franke said. “The education is a big piece. Most of the time, once you tell them once, it’s a rare occasion that we see them do it again.”

Rob Davis is a senior reporter at Voice of San Diego. You can contact him directly at or 619.325.0529.

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Rob Davis

Rob Davis was formerly a senior reporter for Voice of San Diego.

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