A week-long sweep of waters from South Carolina to the Virgin Islands targeted illegal charter boats, the biggest operation yet in a Coast Guard crackdown.

Coast Guard teams in Florida, South Carolina, Georgia, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands boarded 172 vessels during “Operation PAX Defender” which concluded on Labor Day weekend. During the operation, the Coast Guard busted six operators for illegal charter business, according to tallies released by the Coast Guard 7th District headquarters in Miami.

Their catch included a second offense for the Golden Touch II, a 147’x28’9” yacht that had been boarded Aug. 20 off Key Biscayne, Fla., and cited for several illegal charter violations including exceeding capacity with 47 passengers. While the latest operation was underway the owner was arrested for violating a Captain of the Port order that was imposed after the Aug. 20 incident, Coast Guard officials said.

“The Golden Touch II case highlights how seriously the Coast Guard and our partner agencies take illegal charters,” said Capt. Michael Fazio, staff judge advocate at the 7th District. “This is more than a simple misuse of a private vessel. These owners and operators are putting at risk the lives of the people they embark and will be held legally liable.”

A Coast Guard Station Charleston boarding team conducts a safety inspection aboard a charter fishing vessel on the Cooper River August 31, 2018, in Charleston, S.C. Coast Guard photo/PO3 Ryan Dickinson.

A Coast Guard Station Charleston boarding team conducts a safety inspection aboard a charter fishing vessel on the Cooper River Aug. 31, 2018, in Charleston, S.C. Coast Guard photo/PO3 Ryan Dickinson.

Coast Guard boat crews along with Coast Guard Investigative Services officers also issued more than two dozen violations to boaters, stopped one uninspected passenger vessel with an unlicensed captain near St. Pete Beach, Fla., and terminated several voyages for unsafe conditions.

The Coast Guard began looking closely at illegal charters in Florida in 2015, alerted by legitimate charter operators to the rise of boat ridesharing apps on smartphones and online advertising by private boat owners looking for paying passengers.

The problem gathered more urgency after deaths associated with illegal charter trips.

“The Coast Guard’s main mission is to ensure safety and security on the water; boating passengers should understand the safety requirements before paying for boating services,” said Cmdr. Anthony Migliorini, chief of prevention at Coast Guard Sector St. Petersburg.  “I can’t stress enough the importance of asking the captain to verify his or her license and researching the charter company that you are going to book. If you notice anything suspicious, contact the Coast Guard.

“Furthermore, if the operator of the charter asks anyone to mislead Coast Guard boarding team members by lying to them, this should be an instant red flag. I would urge charter passengers to not partake in this activity, if you do, you also could be found in violation of federal law.”

This summer Coast Guard boarding teams have been writing a list of hefty civil violations for illegal operators that under federal regulations can bring maximum penalties up to $41,456. The menu of fines includes:

  • Up to $18,477 for failure of an inspected vessel to under the control of an individual with the appropriate Coast Guard license.
  • Up to $38,925 for failure to have an unlicensed passenger vessel under the control of a properly licensed individual.
  • Up to $7,251 for failure of operators to be enrolled in a drug and alcohol testing program.
  • Up to $23,436 for failure to provide a Coast Guard Certificate of Inspection for vessels carrying more than six passengers.
  • Up to $15,995 for failure to produce a valid Certificate of Documentation for vessels over five gross tons.

"We highly appreciate the endeavors taken by legal charter operators and fully understand the impacts illegal charter vessels have on their operations,” said Brian Knapp, senior investigation officer at Coast Guard Sector St. Petersburg. “We urge all licensed charter boat captains to report illegal passenger vessels to the Coast Guard. The Coast Guard takes all reports of illegal charters seriously and will investigate them to the fullest.”

Three illegal charters were terminated near Key West and Miami. In South Carolina and Georgia, the Coast Guard and state natural resources officers conducted increased patrols. The operations there and in other states also included visiting marinas to talk to licensed captains and private boats owners about the problem, holding education sessions, and helping licensed operators to get into compliance, Coast Guard officials said.

“While the results of this surge operation helped highlight the efforts of Coast Guard crews throughout the region, illegal operators of charters should know that our teams are constantly on patrol," said Capt. Megan Dean, commander of Coast Guard Sector Miami.

“We will continue to enforce and hold accountable those who seek to mislead the public and Coast Guard officials with illegal charter operations, and help educate charter passengers and operators on safe and legal charter practices.”

Contributing Editor Kirk Moore was a reporter for the Asbury Park Press for over 30 years before joining WorkBoat in 2015. He wrote several award-winning stories on marine, environmental, coastal and military issues that helped drive federal and state government policy changes. He has also been an editor for WorkBoat’s sister publication, National Fisherman, for over 25 years. Moore was awarded the Online News Association 2011 Knight Award for Public Service for the “Barnegat Bay Under Stress,” 2010 series that led to the New Jersey state government’s restoration plan. He lives in West Creek, N.J.