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End of the Line

Widespread Efforts to Undermine Illegal Charters Bring Safety to All

Capt. Matt Arnholt March 13, 2019

Florida’s massive fishing and boating industry comprises many knowledgeable and capable captains and mates that are committed to keeping their clients safe. However, the unfortunate reality is that along with the trustworthy men and women who conduct legitimate passenger for hire operations, there are many fraudulent individuals carrying out under the radar affairs. Not only do these unlawful operators negatively affect hard-working captains and mates who abide by the rules, but they also put the lives of unknowing passengers at risk.

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Photography: U.S. Coast Guard/Luke Clayton

Fortunately, the U.S. Coast Guard made this particular issue a point of emphasis earlier in the year, initiating Operation Passenger Defender in an effort to put a stop to illegal charter operations within the Coast Guard’s 7th District of responsibility. While headquarters are located in Miami, this coverage area includes Florida, Georgia and South Carolina. Through this initiative, the Coast Guard has been successful in stopping a number of illegal charters, not only limited to fishing operations, but snorkeling tours, sunset cruises and trips to the sandbar. On Tampa Bay alone, over Labor Day weekend Sector St. Petersburg Coast Guard crews and members of Coast Guard Investigative Services boarded and cited nine captains for breaking federal law.

While the Coast Guard works to put a stop to illegal practices, it’s important that potential clients looking to book charters do their part as well to protect themselves and others. Asking captains to verify their credentials is a good start, as most reputable captains for hire will gladly provide proper documentation to a potential client. However, if a captain fails to show proper credentials when asked, consider it an immediate sign that you need to find a new skipper. Additionally, potential clients should do some research before booking a charter. A simple online search will often yield access to the charter operation’s website with relevant information regarding the captain and vessel, as well as reviews from past clients. Furthermore, if there is any suspicion that there is an illegal charter service being operated, it should be reported to the Coast Guard. With the explosion of smartphone apps offering vessel charter services, this issue is of more concern than ever before.

Though bargain-hunting tourists looking for an inexpensive day on the water may not be able to differentiate between legal and illegal charter operations, seasoned fishermen and charter boat regulars know what to expect from credentialed mariners. It’s also important to be aware that the people who run illegal charters might ask clients to mislead authorities if they are questioned, a request guests should never adhere to, as lying to the Coast Guard is a federal offense. Additional red flags that could signal an unlicensed charter are lack of adequate safety equipment, failure to display proper documentation and signage on board, and vessels that are grossly over capacity.

A valid Certificate of Inspection proves the vessel meets minimum federal safety standards...

Although illegal charter operations are frequently carried out aboard yachts that shuttle paying passengers to the sandbar, anglers must keep in mind that the issue is also very much prevalent within the charter fishing industry. On a paid fishing trip, clients rely on captains, mates and guides to put them on memorable catches, but they are also trusting them to return to port safely. When taking passengers on a vessel in any capacity, the operator is inherently responsible for the safety of those on board. Certainly, there are unfortunate circumstances that may arise when passengers are harmed through no fault of the operator, but charter captains must prioritize safety over all else, even catching fish.

There are various types of captain’s licenses that exist, and potential clients must be diligent when verifying a captain’s credentials before booking a charter to make sure the person at the helm is in fact qualified to run a charter. Many of the captains around the state running fishing charters do so with an OUPV Near Coastal, or six-pack, Merchant Mariner Credential, which permits them to take six paying passengers at a time, excluding crew, on a vessel not previously inspected by the Coast Guard up to 100 miles offshore.

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Photography: Doughertyphotos.com

In order to operate a vessel with more than six paying passengers, captains must possess 25-, 50- or 100-ton Near Coastal Master credentials, which allow them to operate inspected or uninspected vessels within the tonnage limits of their qualification up to 200 miles offshore. This allows for as many paying passengers as a Coast Guard inspected vessel is certified to carry, though uninspected vessels are still limited to six. During a busy weekend at the sandbar, large yachts packed with people are common. However, to have more than six paying passengers on board, these vessels are required to have passed inspection by the Coast Guard and must be under the operation of a captain with the proper master credential. A valid Certificate of Inspection proves the vessel meets minimum federal safety standards and outlines passenger and crew manning requirements. While there are certainly charters out there operating legally, it’s a safe bet that there are many others failing to meet the aforementioned requirements.

Though illegal charter operations have historically proven to be unsafe for passengers, these unlawful endeavors also have a negative impact on the charter business as a whole. More specifically, they hurt the hard-working captains who are actually following the law. Unfortunately, despite the efforts of the Coast Guard and widespread local law enforcement agencies, many of the frauds who mislead customers and illegally pose as licensed captains go unpunished. These people are cheating the system by offering bargain prices and undercutting the real professionals. Meanwhile, charter captains who earned their titles spend significant time and effort assembling credentials and keeping vessels safe and well maintained for clients, as well as paying for the necessary permits, insurance and proper state and local taxes. Natural disasters and increased fishing regulations have made the life of a charter captain hard enough without unlicensed captains taking from the pie.

As the Coast Guard continues to combat this pressing issue, potential charter clients can lend a helping hand. By verifying the qualifications of charter vessels and their captains, customers can avoid being stuck on the wrong end of an illegal operation. Additionally, boaters who witness potentially illegal charters taking place with known offenders are encouraged to report what they see.

While the U.S. Coast Guard works to curb this unfortunate matter, it’s imperative that potential charter clients remain wary of these illicit situations and question who exactly is in the captain’s seat. Would you hire an unlicensed electrician to work on your house?

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