The Coast Guard is on the prowl for unlicensed tour boat operators carrying passengers to see lava streaming into the Pacific from Hawaii’s Kilauea volcano.

The seaward flow of molten rock — dubbed “the firehose flow” by geologists at the U.S. Geological Survey’s Hawaiian Volcano Observatory — gushes out of the Kilauea’s Kamokuna ocean entry, amid bursts of steam and flying debris.

This week Coast Guard officials said they identified two tour boats operating illegally out of Pohoiki Boat Ramp, and ramped up their enforcement in response. A nationwide upturn in uninspected, unlicensed boat charter services has raised alarm among the Coast Guard and passenger vessel industry. The Kilauea tours add a new element of danger, the Coast Guard said.

"Safety is always our top priority," said Capt. David McClellan, chief of prevention, Coast Guard 14th District. "For boat operators, it is important to maintain situational awareness and not unnecessarily put yourself, your passengers or your boat in danger. For visitors, it's important they check that their hired boat operators are licensed ensuring they possess the experience and training required to get them to the viewing area and back safely."

As the volcano creates new shoreline on the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, the unstable cooling lava and sand causes collapses of the sea cliff, most recently on Feb. 2. USGS geologists offered vivid warnings to visitors against getting too close to the Kamokuna flow.

“Venturing too close to an ocean entry on land or the ocean exposes you to flying debris created by the explosive interaction between lava and water. Also, the new land created is unstable because it is built on unconsolidated lava fragments and sand. This loose material can easily be eroded away by surf, causing the new land to become unsupported and slide into the sea.

“Additionally, the interaction of lava with the ocean creates a corrosive seawater plume laden with hydrochloric acid and fine volcanic particles that can irritate the skin, eyes, and lungs.”

“It is one of the most dangerous areas of the park because it could potentially collapse, sending dangerous projectiles into the air,” according to a Coast Guard advisory. “The steam emitted where lava meets the water contains hydrochloric acid and glass particles. Tour boat operators are urged to maintain a safe distance from both to ensure their safety as well as that of their passengers.”

Unlicensed for-hire boat operators in Florida began to get attention from the Coast Guard, and concern has spread across the industry in recent years with the rise of ride-sharing smartphone applications that can connect unwary customers with unlicensed captains. The problem inspired a session at last week’s Passenger Vessel Association convention in Seattle, led by Mike Borgström, president of Wendella Sightseeing Co., a Chicago tour boat operator.

“I don’t think people fully understand laws that apply to bareboat charters,” Borgström said. “The public is being misled into thinking it’s safe. Many of these boats wouldn’t stand up to Coast Guard inspection. People have gotten away with it without any repercussions. We need a couple of these guys to get busted big time.”

The law requires a boat to be inspected if it carries more than six people with at least one paying passenger. Operators must be licensed to legally carry up to six paying riders. Commercial operators with six or more onboard — with at least one paying — must have a master’s license and a Certificate of Inspection (COI). Bareboat charters may carry a maximum of 12 without a COI. The Coast Guard has several enforcement options including taking control of the vessel, civil penalties up to $37,500, violation notices and revoking a master’s license.

Masters of commercial charters operating in Hawaii state waters are also required by the State of Hawaii to have a permit from the Department of Land and Natural Resources and to keep that permit on the vessel.

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.