Both state and federal agencies are going after Pete Knutson, a local salmon fisherman and environmental activist, because his fishing boat leaked a little oil into Shilshole Bay last fall.

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In defense of state and federal regulators, they do make themselves as clear as spring water. All oil spills are illegal, they say. Doesn’t matter how small.

They really mean it about the small part!

Both state and federal agencies are going after Pete Knutson, a local salmon fisherman and environmental activist, because his fishing boat leaked oil into Shilshole Bay last fall.

How much oil?

Apparently 2 ounces. About a shot glass of the stuff.

Despite the tiny amount, the U.S. Coast Guard has fined him $250 for “discharge of oil into the navigable waters of the United States.” The state Department of Ecology, according to emails Knutson obtained in a records request, plans on “moving ahead with a penalty.”

A spokesman for the state said no decision has been made about whether to fine Knutson, or for how much.

In lieu of talking about Knutson’s case — because it’s still open — the state sent me all the oil-spill fines it imposed last year.

There were 34 of them. They ranged from $100 for an inadvertent leak of 3 gallons of hydraulic oil to $102,000 when Boeing dumped 6,000 gallons of jet fuel.

You guys really go after someone for spilling 2 ounces, I asked?

“Every case is different, but in the end we have to go back to the law,” said Larry Altose, the spokesman. “The law makes the discharge of any amount of oil illegal.”

Knutson is known around town for selling wild-caught salmon at farmers markets under the name Loki Fish Co.

He’s also a professor at Seattle Central Community College, where he teaches, ironically, such things as environmental anthropology — “the way humans interact with the oceans.”

He wrote up his own story about his oil spill at the online site Crosscut.com. Headline: “A little oil and a ton of trouble.”

Last November, someone saw a sheen around his docked 40-foot fishing boat. Port of Seattle officials put an adsorbent boom around his boat and called Knutson, as well as oil-spill response agencies (as required by law).

“Vessel Njord discharged a petroleum product from the bilge into marina waters,” reads the Port’s incident report. “Amount Released (estimated): 1/4 cup.”

What happened is a line on his refrigeration system sprang a leak. Apparently, hydraulic oil dripped into the engine room, then into the bilge, where it joined with water and was pumped into the Sound by an automatic pump.

The Coast Guard estimated the total bilge (water plus oil) that made it into the Sound was about a quart.

Knutson says whoever called in the spill did the right thing.

What he can’t understand is why four investigators responded, impounded his boat for a day and took samples for lab testing to build a case. One that’s lasted nearly three months.

“If a boat is gushing oil, then hell yes, we need to do something about it,” Knutson says. “But 2 ounces?”

Altose said small oil spills are toxic, too. He said the case file would have to answer any specific questions. He sent a copy, and it’s posted at The Seattle Times website.

It says Knutson was flippant about the spill — at one point sarcastically dubbing it a “Bay of Mexico.” It portrays him as uncooperative, his boat messy. It says he never tried to clean up the spill — though the Port had described the sheen as so thin it likely couldn’t be cleaned.

Knutson has a flair for the dramatic. He once led protests when the Port wanted to “gentrify” Fishermen’s Terminal with pleasure yachts. So I don’t doubt he can be prickly.

But how about a drop of common sense here? The guy’s obviously not dumping oil on purpose. It was a 2-ounce accident. If we’re going to bring enforcement investigations every time this happens at one of our marinas, the government’s going to be mighty busy.

Which is the real problem here, Knutson says. Overreach like this makes people cynical about government. Not to mention about environmental laws.

“Everyone knows I’m an environmentalist, so I’m already hearing it from the conservatives,” he said. “They’re going: ‘I told you so.’ “

Danny Westneat’s column appears Wednesday and Sunday. Reach him at 206-464-2086 or dwestneat@seattletimes.com.