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Illegal passenger-for-hire operations on uptick in San Diego

Sailboat Sightseeing Tour San Diego

Illegal Boat Charters San Diego

Illegal passenger-for-hire operations on uptick in San Diego

Charter boat companies in San Diego are complaining about hundreds of illegal passenger-for-hire operations popping up in the bay and taking revenues away from those who offer services legally. San Diego’s Harbor Police acknowledged the problem and seeks to eradicate illegal operations via education and code enforcement.

Port officials and Harbor Police are looking to regulate illegal charters in San Diego Bay.
SAN DIEGO — Have boat, will hire. This might be the mantra of many San Diego area vessel owners who see their boat or Jet Ski as a source of extra or primary income. However local law enforcement and a state agency could be cracking down in illegal passenger-for-hire operations in San Diego Bay.

San Diego Harbor Police Officer James Dreher said illegal charters have been on the rise in Southern California’s southernmost harbor. He told The Log he is working with California Department of Boating and Waterways (DBW) and the Port of San Diego’s legal and real estate departments to help curb the issue and educate as many people as possible of how to properly operate a passenger-for-hire business.

“This year we’re getting hit extremely hard with … illegal charters,” Dreher said, adding many illegal charters are advertising for business on Google, AirBnB, Craigslist, Boat Bound, Get My Boat and the like.

A passenger for hire operation must be properly licensed and permitted, carry insurance to pay for liabilities, and submit to other state regulations such as background checks and drug tests.

Part of the issue, Dreher said, is a lot of smaller, trailerable boats are using public boat launch ramps to run their business (though private docks are being used, as well).

Sportfishing Association of California President Ken Franke said the current fishing climate is incentivizing private boaters to make their vessels available to anglers but might not know all the information of how to properly follow regulations, such as having a licensed captain aboard and having insurance.

Dreher said there are more than 200 potential illegal passenger-for-hire operations in San Diego Bay of which he is aware, offering on-the-water activities such as fishing charters, Jet Ski rentals, small boat rentals, dinner cruises, sailing expeditions and whale watching.

“I have been receiving complaints for several months from our port tenants,” Dreher said, adding he is compiling information and trying to figure out how to address the issue. “They are concerned about what they are seeing out there.”

The illegal charter operations are affecting several legitimate passenger-for-hire business owners in the port district, according to Dreher and the San Diego Port Tenants Association (SDPTA).

Those businesses obtain the necessary licensing and permit documents, purchase the proper insurance, and follow safety protocols. While data is still taking shape a few sources estimated legitimate passenger-for-hire operations have suffered at least a 30 percent loss in business, or more, due to illegal charters.

Carole Noska, who operates a Coast Guard certified charter business in San Diego, said her business is down about 80 percent since the beginning of the year. The loss of business started about a year ago but she didn’t really recognize it as being associated with illegal charter operations until later.

Another charter boat operator in San Diego Bay who did not want to be identified on the record said the biggest issue with illegal charter operations is safety.

“My concern is that illegal charters are dangerous. They do not comply with Coast Guard regulations. They do not have all the safety equipment,” the small (and legal) charter boat operator stated, adding some illegal passenger-for-hire operators also take more people onboard than the vessel can handle.

He added law enforcement is not doing enough to monitor or regulate illegal passenger-for-hire operations. The Harbor Police, he believes, would be able to address the issue, for example, by starting a task force with the Coast Guard and monitoring online advertisements for illegal operators. It would not take much effort, the charter boat operator stated, to find out who properly follows regulations and who is skirting the system.

“The police are not doing their job … and neither is the Coast Guard. It does hurt people who put money into their boats and do it the right way,” he continued.

Noska said she has been in regular contact with the Coast Guard and Harbor Police but they indicated they need more resources to address the issue.

“What does my tax money do to protect me,” she asked, adding local law enforcement indicated there are so many other issues along the waterfront requiring attention that cracking down on illegal passenger-for-hire operations is not a priority.

Public safety is also an issue, as some unregulated charter operations do not have the proper insurance to cover potential losses.

Part of the issue is the state does not have an issue with charter operations out of boat launch ramps so long as public access or use is not negatively affected. So if a person wants to run a small fishing expedition from Shelter Island Boat Launch Ramp and does not interfere with other users, alarm bells might not go off at the state level.

Nonetheless Dreher said there is an effort to determine how to address illegal passenger-for-hire operations.

For example the port district could be amending codes to be more specific about regulating activity, including commercial use of boat launch ramps. Perhaps a lottery system would be instituted to determine who is allowed to run a business from the launch ramp and charge a flat rate fee for use. (Charter and passenger-for-hire operations already have to pay the port and local marinas to run their businesses.)

The port district might also add signs at the gates of local marinas to inform boaters and customers of proper charter or passenger-for-hire operations.

There is already an enforcement mechanism in place for those who are caught running an illegal charter or passenger-for-hire service.

Illegal operators are first given a warning and then educated about how to become a proper charter or passenger-for-hire service. Anyone who is warned is placed in the Harbor Police’s system so officers can keep track of potential multiple offenders.

A second violation of passenger-for-hire regulations earns a misdemeanor citation, though the local courts offer a diversion program in lieu of paying fines.

Illegal passenger-for-hire operators are assessed an enhanced misdemeanor and have their vessels impounded for 30 days if caught a third time.

Dreher said he cancelled several trips already and is working with DFW and the Coast Guard to target six-pack charter vessels. He also hopes to get as many warnings out there and educate the public of how to properly operate a passenger-for-hire service.

Franke added the Coast Guard sent out a notice to everyone about illegal passenger-for-hire operations and informing people how to become in sync with state and local requirements.

“We’re all willing to help them. It just needs to be considered urgent,” Noska said, hoping law enforcement will get more resources to tackle to problem.

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