Coast Guard cracks down on illegal charters in Florida, Georgia, SC

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The following is text of news releases from the U.S. Coast Guard:

(TAMPA, Fla.) — The Coast Guard boarded 13 vessels and interdicted one illegal charter operation along Florida’s Gulf Coast during Operation PAX Defender, a weeklong Coast Guard initiative to prevent illegal charter operations. 

During the operation, all Coast Guard Sector St. Petersburg boat crews were on patrol along with members from Coast Guard Investigative Services from St. Petersburg. Coast Guard investigating officers responded to six reports of potential illegal operations and one uninspected passenger vessel was found to be operating near St. Pete Beach without a properly credentialed captain.

The Coast Guard is currently investigating the company who owns the UPV that was operating without a credentialed mariner and intends on issuing a civil penalty. The company will be cited under 46 CFR 15.605, failure to have an UPV under the control of a properly licensed individual and 46 CFR 16.201, failure of the marine employer to comply with the drug testing regulations. 

"The Coast Guard’s main mission is to ensure safety and security on the water; boating passengers should understand the safety requirements before paying for boating services,” said Cmdr. Anthony Migliorini, chief of prevention at Coast Guard Sector St. Petersburg. “I can’t stress enough the importance of asking the captain to verify his or her license and researching the charter company that you are going to book. If you notice anything suspicious, contact the Coast Guard. Furthermore, if the operator of the charter asks anyone to mislead Coast Guard boarding team members by lying to them, this should be an instant red flag. I would urge charter passengers to not partake in this activity, if you do, you also could be found in violation of federal law.”

Operation PAX Defender started as a response to increased illegal charter activity in Coast Guard 7th District's area of responsibility. This weeklong operation involved increasing patrol efforts throughout the Coast Guard’s 7th District and targeting operators who mislead and misrepresent themselves to customers and operate without license or certification.

“My hope is that the reason we didn’t find a large number of illegal charters during this operation is due to our tireless efforts to educate potential passengers and to deter would-be illegal operators,” said Migliorini. “We will continue our efforts to identify and stop illegal charter operations throughout the year.”   

While on patrol, boarding officers from Station St. Petersburg met with several legal charter captains who expressed their concerns regarding illegal charter operations. 

“Illegal charter operations affects the livelihood over the guys who go through the right process, take the schooling, pass the exams, maintain all the credentials, so we can be on these guy’s (Coast Guard) team doing the right thing and making money the right and honest way,” said Shawn McCole, licensed charter captain.  

The Coast Guard and partner agencies also increased patrols to deter illegal charter operations in South Carolina and Georgia. During the operation, South Carolina Department of Natural Resources and Coast Guard boat crews from Station Charleston, Brunswick, and Tybee Island increased patrols to deter illegal charter operations which included:

• 16 boardings throughout South Carolina
• 10 boardings throughout Georgia
• Two non-illegal operation violations by South Carolina DNR
• One illegal passenger operation violation by South Carolina DNR
• Walked the docks of four Charleston marinas

"While the results of this weekend's operation highlight the successful efforts of multiple Coast Guard crews and state and local partners throughout the region, illegal charter operators should know that our teams are on patrol 24/7," said Cmdr. Kevin Beck, Prevention Department head, Sector Charleston. "As always, we will continue to ensure commercial charters are in compliance with safety regulations and pursue enforcement penalties, when necessary. It is imperative that everyone who is looking to charter a vessel understand that they are fully within their right to verify that the operator has a USCG's captain's license and that the vessel has current safety certificates if it is required to be inspected."

In the weekend prior to Operation PAX Defender starting, Miami-based Coast Guard units terminated three separate illegal charter vessels: Blessed, Golden Touch II and It’s All Good.

While Operation PAX Defender was underway, the owner of the 147-foot yacht Golden Touch II was arrested for violating the Captain of the Port order placed on the vessel after it was operating an illegal charter Aug. 20.

“The Golden Touch II case highlights how seriously the Coast Guard and our partner agencies take illegal charters,” said Capt. Michael Fazio, staff judge advocate, Coast Guard 7th District. “This is more than a simple misuse of a private vessel. These owners and operators are putting at risk the lives of the people they embark and will be held legally liable.”

Owners and operators of illegal charter vessel can face maximum civil penalties of $41,456 for illegal passenger-for-hire operations. Some potential fines for illegally operating a charter vessel are:

• Up to $18,477 for failure of an inspected vessel to under the control of an individual with the appropriate Coast Guard license.
• Up to $38,925 for failure to have an UPV under the control of a properly licensed individual.
• Up to $7,251 for failure of operators to be enrolled in a chemical testing program.
• Up to $23,436 for failure to provide a Coast Guard certificate of inspection for vessels carrying more than six passengers.
• Up to $15,995 for failure to produce a valid certificate of documentation for vessels over 5 gross tons.

"We highly appreciate the endeavors taken by legal charter operators and fully understand the impacts illegal charter vessels have on their operations,” said Brian Knapp, senior investigation officer at Coast Guard Sector St. Petersburg. “We urge all licensed charter boat captains to report illegal passenger vessels to the Coast Guard. The Coast Guard takes all reports of illegal charters seriously and will investigate them to the fullest. Those who intentionally evade regulations or subvert the laws for the safe and proper operation of these types of vessels will be investigated."

By Professional Mariner Staff