Coast Guard targets illegal fishing charters in Atlantic
By JEFF HAMPTON | The Virginian-Pilot | Published: September 23, 2020
(Tribune News Service) — The Coast Guard is on the lookout for illegal charter boats. They could be dangerous for paying customers, officials said.
At least five illegal charters were stopped in the mid-Atlantic region from North Carolina to New Jersey in July and August, according to a Coast Guard news release.
The release said it was an increase, but did not give the typical number stopped during those months.
Charters — where customers pay for a service such as dolphin tours, scuba diving and fishing — are popular on the Outer Banks. But to legally charge, the boats and captains must have licenses and permits — in some cases from both state and federal agencies.
The rules call for the boats to be inspected and to have proper safety gear, among other things.
Licenses ensure the captain has at least 360 days of “underway” experience, extensive first aid knowledge and equipment and that he or she has passed a background check and physical exam, Lt. John Packard of Sector North Carolina said in an email.
Three cases are under investigation after stops in North Carolina waters, he said.
Without a license, a crew might be unprepared to keep their customers safe in an emergency. Weather and waves can get suddenly rough or someone on board might get injured or sick. Boat equipment and the motor can malfunction.
“Illegal charters can be very dangerous,” Packard said.
Anyone hiring a charter should ask to see a valid license and proof of insurance, the release said.
Outer Banks fishing charters typically operate out of one of about 14 marinas. Patrons often pay for an all-day trip to the Gulf Stream looking to catch tuna or a large billfish. Some go on half day trips closer to shore or in the sound. It’s a tradition to lay out the catch on the dock for pictures to be posted on social media.
Fishing charters have seen a banner year this summer with captains booked almost every day, said Rom Whitaker, captain of the Release based at Hatteras Harbor Marina in Hatteras Village.
The captains he knows from the popular marinas are all properly licensed, he said. But some operators may try to dodge the rules, he said.
“I have heard of people with smaller boats looking for people to split the gas money,” he said.
It could be tough for law enforcement to distinguish between people legitimately fishing with friends or taking extra people who are paying for the trip, Whitaker said.
Coast Guard enforcement finds illegal charters on websites such as Facebook, getmyboat.com and boatsetter.com, Packard said. Some get reported by other mariners who are frustrated at those trying to get away with not having a license.
Enforcement teams often discover captains without the right permits after a routine boarding, he said.
Violations can bring civil penalties approaching $100,000 for each day the illegal vessel operates, the release said.
Charter captains and vessels can get permits through state and federal agencies. A state charter license can cost up to $350 a year. Such a “blanket” license allows paying customers to fish onboard without having to get their own coastal fishing license.
Last year, the state issued 558 vessels blanket licenses.
Federal permits to catch species offshore cost up to $45 annually. North Carolina has 333 vessels with federal permits, second to Florida which has 1,130.