The Coast Guard has cited nine captains or charter businesses for breaking federal law while operating boats in Tampa Bay since the beginning of the summer.
One of those local captains was found just last week during a Coast Guard crack down — "Operation PAX Defender" — across its seventh district which covers Georgia, South Carolina, Jacksonville, Miami, Puerto Rico and Tampa Bay. It was the first named operation that local Coast Guard officers have done since two deadly Florida cases thrust the illegal charter industry in the spotlight.
Districtwide, Coast Guard officers found a total 12 violations and ended the trips of three illegal charter boats, which are vessels and captains offering services to customers without proper inspections or licensing.
Sometimes the illegal boats are sailing without proper safety equipment or with too many passengers on board. Often, customers are unaware their captains are even breaking federal law.
"It’s certainly an issue and it’s a nationwide issue," Cmdr. Anthony Migliorini told the Tampa Bay Times. "There are a lot of operators who do what they’re supposed to, but there’s those who do not."
Those who operate outside the law, often to avoid pricey inspection fees, could be putting lives in danger. It’s the recent deaths that prompted the district’s crackdown.
In April, a passenger in Miami was sucked into a boat’s propeller and killed when an unlicensed captain failed to ensure he got back onboard. That captain pleaded guilty last week. A year before, a college student from China and a charter boat company employee died near St. Pete Beach; a pending civil suit accuses that captain of lacking the proper credentials.
The Coast Guard said a criminal investigation about those deaths is still ongoing.
Ahead of Labor Day weekend, Tampa Bay’s Coast Guard invited reporters to shadow officers aboard its patrol boat as it monitored the waters.
Of the handful of boats they boarded with reporters present, none were operating illegally.
"I’m glad they’re checking," Capt. Banks Allen said a few moments after officers stepped off his boat last week.
He took the morning off from his fishing charter business to take his wife and dog, Skipper, out on the water. His paperwork, credentials and equipment checked out.
"But illegal boats?," he said. "I see it almost every time I go out."
A group of local operators banded together in May to form the Tampa Bay Passenger Vessel Association. They want to see heightened penalties against repeat offenders. They also regularly report boats they suspect are operating against the law to the Coast Guard.
Over the last year, the sector that covers the Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands have issued 11 orders of the port to illegal charters who if found operating again could face felony charges.
The local Coast Guard officers and investigators boarded 13 boats and received six tips about potential illegal operations over the long weekend.
Coast Guard investigators are looking into the company — which it did not name — operating the illegal vessel it found this past week. The captain didn’t have a valid license and wasn’t in the required drug testing program.
"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," Migliorini said in statement Wednesday.
Operators and owners of illegal vessels can face civil penalties up to nearly $41,500. If someone is is injured or dies on an illegal boat, the Coast Guard investigates and shares its findings with the respective State Attorney’s Office.
The Coast Guard encourages passengers to ask captains to see their license, a red booklet. If you’re boarding with more than five other people, a passenger should ask to see a Coast Guard issued certificate of inspection that shows the boat is allowed to carry that many people.
Contact Sara DiNatale at [email protected] Follow @sara_dinatale.