Fresh off a multistate enforcement blitz, Coast Guard officers met Wednesday with Florida passenger vessel operators to discuss how to stop illegal charter boats.
Prevention officers from Coast Guard sectors Tampa, Jacksonville and Miami met in Clearwater, Fla., with more than 40 members of the Passenger Vessel Association (PVA) to talk about combined efforts to stop illegal passenger vessel operations.
“These conversations with legal operators are critical to keeping our waterways safe,” said Lt. Cmdr. Byron Rios, a prevention officer at Coast Guard 7th District in Miami. “We want to work together to eliminate illegal operations.”
Recent coordinated enforcement sweeps from South Carolina to Florida and the U.S. Virgin Islands targeted illegal charter operations through the Labor Day weekend, with 172 vessels boarded, ranging from center console sport fishing boats to a 147’ luxury yacht busted near Miami.
In a number of cases, Coast Guard teams wrote operators up for a package of violations including operating without an appropriate Coast Guard license; failure to enroll operators in a drug and alcohol testing program; failure to carry a certificate of inspection for vessels carrying more than six passengers; and failure to have a valid certificate of inspection (COI) for vessels over five net tons.
Violators cited in those recent cases face civil fines that can total $41,456.
The 7th District began taking a closer look at illegal charters after being alerted in 2015 by legitimate operators, who had seen a rise in unlicensed competition in Florida waters. PVA officials say part of the problem is tied to the rise of smartphone apps and social media that connect unlicensed boat operators with customers.
“The Coast Guard recommends all passengers paying for boating services ask the captain for merchant mariner credentials,” 7th District officials said in a prepared statement “If the boat is carrying more than six passengers, it is required to be inspected by the Coast Guard, and a certificate of inspection should be displayed in an area accessible to passengers.”
The crackdown has taken on urgency, after Florida cases when paying passengers were killed, like one case near Miami when an unlicensed operator backed his vessel down on a 25-year-old man swimming astern.
“As legal operators, we want to ensure every guest is safe,” said Bob Bijur of Island Queen Cruises, Miami, and a PVA board member. “This was a great forum to further the conversation on illegal charters.”