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Illegal Charter Boats Are Causing Safety Concerns And Stealing Business On San Diego Bay

The U.S. Coast Guard and Port of San Diego Harbor Police patrol San Diego Bay, Sept. 6, 2018.
Matt Hoffman/KPBS
The U.S. Coast Guard and Port of San Diego Harbor Police patrol San Diego Bay, Sept. 6, 2018.

The U.S. Coast Guard and Port of San Diego Harbor Police estimate there are as many as 200 illegal passenger boats for hire operating in San Diego. They can range from fishing trips to whale-watching tours and party cruises.

Both agencies are working together to go after illegal operations, which are often called illegal charters. It’s not a new problem in San Diego. But it's one that Coast Guard Chief Warrant Officer Greg Cable said is becoming more visible.

"I know that social media has brought more attention to them," Cable said. "They advertise them on Craigslist; all social media sites. Facebook, Instagram, I’ve seen them on."

The activities happening on the illegal craft are big business in San Diego. Still, most people paying for these trips do not notice a difference between legal and illegal operations. But the Coast Guard said there is a difference.

"If they don’t have a license then there’s also a potential that they’re safety equipment might not be up to standards," Cable said. "We want everyone to be safe on the waterway and these illegal passenger operations are dangerous."

The Coast Guard has been working with harbor police to identify illegal operations.

"I don’t give warnings," Cable said, adding that the boaters that get cited should already know the rules.

"We did outreach over the past couple of years to over 200 operators in the area. So they’ve all been talked to, they all understand the regulations."

Any captain carrying passengers for hire must be licensed by the Coast Guard.

"To get your license you have to go through a certain amount of training which gets you the experience on the water for safety and rules of the road," Cable said.

There are passenger boats inspected by the Coast Guard and ones that are not. "Inspected boats," are ones looked at regularly by the Coast Guard and must meet certain safety standards. Most illegal operations happen on boats that are “uninspected.”

These uninspected boats are commonly referred to as “six packs.” Even though these boats are uninspected they can still have up to six paying customers on board. But they have to have a licensed captain.

"You’ve got people’s lives in your hands when you’re out there," said Port of San Diego Harbor Police Lt. Brian Jensen. "It’s not like a car where if it breaks down you can just stop and pull over to the side of the road."

The federal penalties for illegally carrying people for hire are steep.

"A civil penalty of $41,000," Cable said. "There’s also the potential that I could go after the captain's license and suspend it for so many months, and third they could go to jail for up to six years."

H&M Landing in Point Loma charters 30 passenger boats for sport fishing.

"It’s very difficult to vet an operation," said H&M Landing owner Frank Ursitti.

Boats that carry people for higher pay to dock at landings like H&M.

RELATED: Unusually Warm Ocean Waters Luring Big Sportfish To San Diego’s Coast

"I then report my earnings on a monthly basis of all the vessels here at my landing and pay a percentage of that to the port of San Diego," Ursitti said.

Ursitti said illegal operations launching from public docks or marinas are not paying their fair share.

"When a boat is privately owned and is operating out of a recreational marina — number one their earnings are going unreported. So he’s paying maybe slip rent at that marina. But what about the five customers who came and parked here up on the street? When they pick up on a public dock here in San Diego who’s paying for the maintenance and build for that public dock?"

The Port of San Diego currently has a permitting system in place for six pack charters.

"It’s very hard to get that information to prove that violation," Jensen said. "So generally what we’re going to do is we’re going to forward it to the port permitting office so they can deal with it there."

The port said it is working on changing the permitting system to address concerns from the boating community.

"Obviously they’re frustrated because they’re the ones trying to follow the rules and get their permits through the port and what not," Jensen said. "So what this is, is an attempt to kind of level the playing field by the port."

There’s also an issue of liability.

"When you’re operating out of a sanctioned leasehold like H&M Landing, they (charter boats) are required to have insurance," Ursitti said. "That’s part of the landings oversight, we make sure the vessel has a minimum liability policy."

When booking a fishing trip or day cruise, Ursitti said people tend to forget about their safety.

"The customer gets down to the boat they’re so excited they can’t wait to get offshore," he said. "The prospect of catching big fish or seeing a whale or whatever the trip might be, that they don’t think about those things on these uninspected vessels."

The Coast Guard said you should always make sure a captain is trained before heading out on the water.

"Say, 'Captain do you have your license on board?’" Cable said. "He should be able to provide it to you at that time."

If they can’t provide it, be suspicious. Before a trip, captains should also give passengers a walk around the boat, pointing out safety features like where life jackets are.

The port hopes by the end of this year to have new regulations to combat illegal passenger boats.

Illegal Charter Boats Are Causing Safety Concerns And Stealing Business On San Diego Bay
Illegal Charter Boats Are Causing Safety Concerns And Stealing Business On San Diego Bay
The U.S. Coast Guard and San Diego Harbor Police said locals and tourists going on fishing trips or whale watching tours don't notice the difference between illegal and legal operations.