On Patrol with Gale Filter in San Diego Bay

jj_salingOn May 18, at a local luncheon, I met a San Diegan JJ Fetter. JJ is a Yale graduate, and I was introduced to JJ by another Yale graduate, Stewart Halpern, who several months earlier toured San Diego Bay with Coastkeeper on a “Clean Sweep” boat patrol. The Yale chain doesn’t end there. Meagan Baehrens, our development director and a Yale graduate, introduced me to Stewart. San Diego Coastkeeper board member Jo Brooks is also a Yale grad.

I had no idea who JJ was, but she did say that her children loved to sail and that she was grateful to Coastkeeper for the work we do protecting San Diego bay. Later that day I discovered JJ has won three world championships and is the only American female to have won two Olympic medals in sailing (Bronze in ’92 and Silver in ’00). JJ has been named Rolex Yachtswoman of the Year four times, and last year she was inducted into the Hall of Fame at the San Diego Hall of Champions. I also came across a piece written several years back where she stated, “Thanks to all the sailboat racing, I’ve done around the world, I have had a chance to sail in gorgeous places like Portofino, St. Tropez, Buzios, Sydney, Auckland—I’m never disappointed by my hometown when I get back.” Not only does San Diego Coastkeeper work to make our waters fishable, swimmable and drinkable, but also sailable for people like JJ and her daughters. A clean Bay makes for happy faces.


Part of my responsibilities as the San Diego Coastkeeper is to patrol and protect our local waters. San Diego Coastkeeper, like 200 Waterkeeper organizations throughout the world, subscribes to a simple tenet unique to our movement: “all members of a community are the owners of its resources and injury to those resources is an act of theft against each member.” It is my job to redress that theft, be it with law-breaking polluters or unresponsive government agencies that allow the pollution to occur. Captain Chris Gunst and I patrol San Diego Bay once a week.

Never, not once, have Chris and I been on patrol and not found water pollution violations. For the past three months our focus has been on violations in which polluters sand and paint their boats in the water without any containment.


California Fish and Game code section 5650, the oldest water pollution statue in the state (1870), makes it unlawful to deposit into, permit to pass into, or place where it can into the waters of the state certain specified pollutants, (e.g., petroleum products, sawdust, cocculus indicus—a natural plant toxin that stuns fish) as well as a broad proscription against the deposit of “any substance or material deleterious to fish, plant, mammal or bird life.” A section 5650 violation is a strict liability offense; there is no need to prove any willful or negligent conduct in order to sustain a violation or conviction. Punishment for a 5650 violation can include up to six months in jail and $1,000 fine.


A single violation of 5650 might not seem to amount to much. Some might wonder what harm is there in a little sawdust or paint going into the water. But as David Gibson, executive office of the San Diego Regional Water Quality Control Board, points out, “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.” See a story about this overlooked pollution problem from Voice of San Diego. Think of a single violation as a broken window. If the window isn’t fixed, we will begin to find new broken windows. One violation leads to another violation and those violations lead to even more violations. It’s a death by a thousand cuts.

It is important that polluters know that there is a green line of environmental enforcement in San Diego and that Coastkeeper is a major player on the enforcement landscape. Compliance is the goal. Polluters also need to know that they will be caught and that enforcement has a bite. San Diego Coastkeeper is the voice for our waters. JJ and other sailors are happy about that. If you would like to get an idea about what our Clean Sweep patrols are like, see NBC San Diego’s story on the Bay’s copper pollution.