Illegal passenger-for-hire operations on uptick in San Diego
Sailboat Sightseeing Tour San
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
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
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
“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
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
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
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
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
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
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
“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
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
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
The port district might also add signs at the
gates of local marinas to inform boaters and customers of proper charter or
There is already an enforcement mechanism in
place for those who are caught running an illegal charter or passenger-for-hire
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
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
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
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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