Coast Guard, local partners terminate illegal boat charter operations

Members of the U.S. Coast Guard verify proper documentation and interview a boat operator and deckhand during a safety inspection at Monroe Harbor in Chicago, Aug. 19, 2017. The Coast Guard and Illinois Department of Natural Resources conducted operations to identify and stop boat owners and operators illegally chartering or renting their boats on Lake Michigan and on the Chicago and Illinois Rivers. (U.S. Coast Guard photo by Master Chief Petty Officer Alan Haraf)

Members of the U.S. Coast Guard verify proper documentation and interview a boat operator and deckhand during a safety inspection at Monroe Harbor in Chicago, Aug. 19, 2017.  (U.S. Coast Guard photo by Master Chief Petty Officer Alan Haraf)

CHICAGO — During the past two weeks, the U.S. Coast Guard and Illinois Department of Natural Resources (IDNR) boarded 39 boats in the Chicago area, terminating the voyages of 22 of those vessels for conducting illegal charter operations on Lake Michigan and the Illinois River near Starved Rock State Park.

The operators of the terminated operations had administrative controls placed on their vessels with Captain of the Port (COTP) Orders by the Coast Guard. The orders directed those boats to immediately cease operating as commercial passenger vessels until they comply with all federal laws and regulations. Failure to comply with the order can result in a civil penalty of up to $90,000 per day of continued operation, up to a total fine of $250,000. Continued violation is a class D felony and can lead to up to ten years in jail.

In addition to the Captain of the Port Orders, the Coast Guard issued multiple Notice of Violation citations totaling more than $50,000, while IDNR issued 14 misdemeanor charges including obstruction of justice.

The increased deterrent operations are part of ongoing efforts this summer to ensure safety to passengers and combat boat owners and operators who are illegally chartering or renting their boats to passengers for trips out on Chicago’s waterways.

Federal law requires a passenger-for-hire service operating on U.S. navigable waters to comply with federal safety and licensing laws and regulations. A Certificate of Inspection onboard the boat, or the operator’s license, shows a vessel has met the minimum Coast Guard safety standards in areas such as firefighting, life saving and navigation equipment requirements. It also sets the maximum number of passengers the vessel can carry.

In addition to joint operations with IDNR, the Coast Guard is also educating passengers looking to charter a boat or pay for a seat aboard a boat. When reserving trips, prospective passengers are encouraged to ask the operator in advance for proof the vessel is compliant with Coast Guard requirements. More boat owners are advertising their vessels for hire through boat sharing websites and mobile apps and are unaware of the risks and regulations for charter boats.

Availability on a website is not a guarantee of regulatory compliance. Most people do not know that they booked or are onboard an illegal and unsafe charter until the vessel is boarded by the Coast Guard or IDNR. The Coast Guard is reaching out to websites to do education on this issue as well.

The Coast Guard is committed to ensuring all commercial boats carrying passengers meet federal safety standards. On December 20, 1993, Passenger Vessel Safety Act of 1993 established for the first time the definition of a passenger for hire and required many vessels operating under charter to be inspected by the Coast Guard as commercial passenger vessels.

“My top priority is to ensure vessels carrying passengers on our waterways are operating safely and in accordance with the law. Vessels that do not adhere to federal regulations not only pose serious safety concerns to the public and the environment, but also adversely impact the livelihood of legitimate operators who do comply with federal regulations,” said Cmdr. Zeita Merchant, commanding officer of Coast Guard Marine Safety Unit Chicago. “Our joint efforts with IDNR are helping to eliminate unsafe vessels and unlicensed operators that do not comply with state and Coast Guard regulations from operating on our shared waterways.”

“We have partnered with the Coast Guard to maximize outreach for the sole purpose of keeping our extremely busy waterways safe,” said Captain Brett Scroggins, Region 2 Commander, IDNR. “We will continue to educate the public about safe boating practices to reduce the risk of injury and loss of life, and prosecute those who choose to ignore laws we have been actively promoting.”

The Coast Guard has conducted extensive educational outreach to the maritime community including hosting a seminar earlier this year for commercial vessel operators and those interested in becoming commercial operators. Information is also posted at all Chicago marinas to bring awareness to the issue. The Chicago Harbor Safety Committee has been a key industry group in the effort to rein in illegal charters as well.

If you want to verify the status of a boat you would like to hire or charter, or if you are aware of an illegal passenger vessel operation, please contact Coast Guard Marine Safety Unit Chicago’s Inspections Division at SMBMSUChicago@uscg.mil or call (630) 986-2155.

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