Bye Bye Copper

“Beginning January 1, 2020, no antifouling paint that is intended for use on a recreational water vessel and that contains more than 0.5 percent copper may be offered for sale in this state.

Beginning January 1, 2020, no antifouling paint containing more than 0.5 percent copper may be applied to a recreational water vessel in this state.”

–SB 5436 (State of Washington)


How can those landlubber politicians do such a thing to us! WE NEED OUR COPPER BOTTOM PAINT.

Aaaah, no, we don’t need our copper bottom paint. Really, we don’t.

The Northwest Marine Trade Association, supposedly on the lookout for all things legislative that affect Washington boaters and the industry, pushed for it along with the (aaack!) Puget Soundkeeper Alliance. Are they all out to get us? No, they’re not. They’re just leading the procession of states that will soon ban copper antifouling. And while the paint industry isn’t extremely happy about it, you’re not going to hear too much griping. They’re all too busy creating alternative solutions and getting you to buy them. And the boatyards? Well, this means the copper headache has an end-date, and in all likelihood they’re going to be hauling boats just as often, if not more, than before.

Yes, this is another instance where life becomes a little more difficult for boat owners. And, yes, there will be a learning curve with the new paints and likely some more maintenance. Haulouts aren’t exactly free.

But this move ensures a couple of things. First of all, we’re setting an example for other polluters that progress can happen, allowing us to hold our heads high even over a dinner table with those friends who refuse to ride in anything but a Prius. Secondly, but more to the point, it’s better for the environment.

None of this has stopped the hand-wringing in private and finger pointing on the Internet. The objections are the usual fare, and some of it cannot be denied:


  1. This applies only to recreational boats, not commercial – what’s up with that?
  2. Why does it only apply to boats under 65’? That’s not fair.
  3. Boaters account for such a tiny bit of the copper content, we shouldn’t be burdened.
  4. Without copper, mussels and creatures of shapes and sizes will likely consume our boats, and quickly.


It is very curious why bigger boats and commercial vessels are exempt from this requirement. The copper in their paint is no less toxic than the copper on smaller boats.

Regarding the question of how much pollution a law like this is truly preventing, the argument may be sound but putting that out there doesn’t help our cause. The argument goes something like this (with made up numbers): We only contribute 7/10ths of one percent of the copper pollution, why don’t they go after the other guys first, and leave us until last. Of course there are lots of reasons for this, starting with it’s easier to target boat owners, because we boaters are fat cats polluting the waters everyone depends on.

Of course, we’re not all fat cats and we do care about the environment. But we’re never going to win that argument. Recreational boats aren’t within a lot of people’s means. The money we spend for maintenance and moorage alone exceed what many of our fellow citizens can afford.

It will be self-evident to politicians and environmental groups that recreational boaters simply should not be allowed to pollute. Even a little bit. You can try arguing with them, but I’ll bet my last can of copper paint that you won’t get anywhere with that argument.

This brings us to point number four, the “mussels will now devour my boat” position. Boaters in California, which appears to be the next state in line to pass legislation on this issue, are in an uproar on this point. They appeared convinced that without copper, all hope is lost. It could be because their fouling issues are worse than ours here in the Pacific Northwest, or it could be because the California boating community is not quite as flexible as we. In any case, the Recreational Boaters of California group issued a “Call to Arms” to encourage members and others to oppose pending legislation (SB623), citing lack of effective, available and affordable alternatives.

A war cry to retain the right to pollute just doesn’t seem helpful when the paint manufacturers and researchers say there are alternatives.

While we Washington boaters are quick to run to the defense of the boatyards when they’re under legal attack, we’re pretty quiet when it comes to objecting to new environmental laws. I’d like to think that’s because we truly are environmentalists.

“We’re more progressive than California,” says Sea Hawk paint rep Tony Bulpin, who sells both in California and Washington. “In California they’re still using the highest copper content paints because that’s what their customers want.” The big paint manufacturers aren’t fighting the legislation, they’re looking for new stuff to sell boaters.

There are enough studies out there, and more coming, that debunk the idea that copper is the only viable solution. Copper is probably still the best weapon against bottom growth. But it may not be the best for long, and it certainly isn’t the only option.

There are many different alternatives. Most don’t require stripping the bottom before application. And no, they’re not way more expensive than copper paint (have you paid for a can of copper paint lately?) In fact, the “green” paint is sometimes cheaper. They can be nearly as effective as that 70% copper paint on your boat bottom right now, and perhaps in some ways even better.

There are a couple of provisos that go hand in hand with this. As with any paint, it has to be applied properly. Even if the new antifouling can go over an existing copper paint, there is some basic surface preparation that must be followed.

Even more importantly, depending on the paint, it may require more maintenance (i.e. bottom cleaning) than what you’re used to with copper paints. If you don’t do this maintenance, you’re likely to experience shaggy bottom. For some, frequent bottom cleaning will be nothing new. Racing sailors are nothing less than neurotic about the smoothness of their boats’ bottoms, which will be cleaned regularly no matter what goes on in the ways of antifouling. For others, they’ll learn that frequent bottom cleaning is worth the price.

The New Biocides

Pettit Paint rep Mark Lindeman feels Econea is the silver bullet to replace the copper bullets. What’s Econea? Maybe it’s a biproduct of some cholesterol-lowering drug research. After all, it came from the labs at Janssen Pharmaceutical. However it came into being, it seems to keep invertebrates off your boat’s bottom as well as copper. It’s not perfect, however, as Econea doesn’t keep the veneer of slime from developing. And how do you get rid of the slime? With a zinc additive. Yep, another heavy metal, but one that lawmakers aren’t as concerned about right now. Econea seems to be only available in ablative paints

Econea seems to be the new standard biocide and is the active ingredient in paints from Pettit, Sea Hawk and Interlux.

The US Navy had a big hand (doling out the dollars) in the development of ePaint. EPaint chemist Michael Goodwin explains that the energy of sunlight is utilized to links the H20 molecules to the O2 molecules, make H2O2, commonly known as hydrogen peroxide. The result is a barrier that critters choose to bypass. EPaint has been around for many years, and was adopted early on by aluminum boat owners who couldn’t have copper (dissimilar metal) on their boat.

While ePaints do a great job of keeping larvae off the boat, they’re formulated with zinc to keep the algae and slime away.

It turns out zinc is a pretty good antifouling as well, either in combination with Econea, in ePaint or by itself. But of course, it’s a heavy metal that’s not good for the environment. But it’s largely under the regulatory radar for now. Zinc comes in two basic forms, zinc pyrithione and zinc oxide. They have different antifouling characteristics.

The idea behind ceramic paints is to make a surface that is just plain too slippery for critters to grab onto. This is my personal favorite, as the idea of a hard, mirror-like finish, all the time, has great appeal, even if it means fighting a war against slime. I’ll figure out a way to “floss” the boat with a fuzzy cloth to wipe the slime off, and have a diver go down once in a while to make sure the slime is held in check in those “hard to reach” places.

Fellow racing sailor Scott Anderson of CSR Marine is going to put a ceramic coating on the bottom of his 32’ Bayliner. He’d painted the topsides with good results and is willing to try it under the waterline. Some of the boats he’s seen come through his yard with ceramic paints have had bad results, which he largely attributes to inadequate maintenance.

Why Wait?

The antifouling solutions mentioned above exist now. With Washington’s legislation and other states sure to follow, and parts of Europe much further on the path than we, the incentive is huge for paint companies to come up with the Next Great Product. Legislation combined with the free market might just do great things.

Don’t forget that the shipping industry will ultimately be regulated in these matters, and keeping fuel-efficient bottoms is a matter of dollars, so some useful technology might come from that industry.

Personally, I see the Next Great Product to come from somewhere other than marine paint manufacturers. Remember the Sharklet material I wrote about a couple of months ago? That research is currently directed at the medical industry, but could be shifted toward antifouling at some point. That might not be “It,” but maybe there’s something else out there that will be “It.”

Astrophysicist and scientific cheerleader Neil deGrasse Tyson points out that many revolutionary advances in science come from unrelated scientific endeavors, things like MRI and X-ray in medicine, for instance, were not discovered by someone trying to solve medical challenges. “The best solution will come from another place on the portfolio of scientific research,” Tyson says. With the almighty dollar signs circling the world’s boat and ship bottoms, better solutions will almost certainly come our way. Maybe the solution will be cheaper than copper paint whose price is determined largely by the price of copper, which seems headed for the upper atmosphere.

In the meantime, we may have to clean our boat bottoms more often.

Copper bottom paint should go the way of DDT and leaded paint. There are good alternatives, and better ones will come. We’ve got nearly a decade to figure out what would work best on each of our boats.

Following are some relevant links. There’s  mountain of information on the Internet and your local paint expert will have plenty of info to share. (independent testing of antifouling products. Subscription required)


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