Coast Guard Backs Off, But Tells Lake Erie Charter Captains to Start Complying With Rules

The U.S. Coast Guard said it will work with Lake Erie charter fishing captains to help them get their boat papers in order, but will give them time to comply without citing them.

Charter captains of small, six-passenger boats complained that they faced $40,000 fines and the threat of missing most of the fishing season for not having papers documenting that their boats were made in the United States. Two captains of small fishing boats made by SportCraft and a tugboat operator were cited in May, the Coast Guard said, and three charter owners filed papers asking the U.S. Department of Transportation's Maritime Administration to waive the U.S.-build document requirement. 

But the waiver process can take two to three months, putting the charter operator out of business for that time.


“I’m grateful,” said Rick Unger, president of the Lake Erie Charter Boat Association, “that they gave us this grace period to work this all out, rather than have our guys out of business for the season.”


Coast Guard spokesman Lt. David Connor, based in Cleveland, said, “We work and live on the Great Lakes. We realize the Great Lakes are a valuable resource. We’re not trying to put small businessmen out of business.”

Some of the smaller charter-boat owners said they weren’t even sure their boats needed to comply. The domestic-manufacturing requirement covers commercial boats measuring at least 5 net tons, but the measurement is calculated using a series of dimensions -- and Unger said some owners believe their boats are under that measure. He said he hopes the Coast Guard will work out a clearer process to help owners determine that.

A 1920 federal law requires factory documentation that a boat of at least 5 net tons be American made. But Connor acknowledged that until these recent incidents, the Coast Guard’s policy on documentation on the Great Lakes had been to stress outreach and education rather than enforcement for small charter owners. That’s why the short-lived crackdown caught some owners of so-called six-pack boats by surprise. 

The made-in-America law was intended to protect national security and shipping interests after World War I. Yet the enforcement put some owners of used boats built by SportCraft, a Florida company that went out of business in 2009, in a particular bind. 

According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, the only way to get the legal documents proving a boat’s nation of origin is to hope that the original owner held onto them -- which can be tough if a boat is sold and resold -- or to ask the manufacturer for written verification that it made the boat. 

In the case of SportCraft, that was impossible. Another company, Perry Boat Works, has acquired the SportCraft assets but says it has no records for boats that the former owners made.

Many current SportCraft owners have paid $500 application fees and obtained federal waivers because they cannot get the original documents. Others on Lake Erie took a more relaxed approach because the Coast Guard did not seem to mind, as long as other papers and the boats themselves were in order. 

But a Coast Guard officer in May recommended citations after separately pulling alongside two charter boats near Catawba for inspections. Another officer inspected a tug boat and recommended charges, not only for the documentation issue but also for operating without a license, Connor said.

Capt. Jeff Ogden, captain of the Coast Guard sector in Detroit, followed up within days and wrote official notices of noncompliance, Connor said. Yet after talking with others at the Detroit sector, Ogden decided to give the charter captains time to work on their documentation issues while the Coast Guard continues its education-and-outreach effort. 

Connor stressed that even though the orders were rescinded, “it was not because it was the wrong call” to charge the owners in the first place. He said everything the officers did “was within the law. We give our Coast Guard officers a range of options. You can be lenient, or you can be within the scope of the law.”

The Coast Guard on Lake Erie has tried for more than a year to make sure commercial boating operators know the documentation laws and comply with them, Connor said. He said the Coast Guard Auxiliary offers free inspections and advice, and officers at the Marblehead station have invited captains to come by for guidance. But only two charter captains in the past year have gone to the Marblehead station to take up the Coast Guard on its offer, Connor said.

The Coast Guard hopes that now, as word of the issue has spread, the captains will use the next year to get their documents or waivers in order.

“There’s no fishing on Lake Erie all winter,” he added. “Hopefully we can work with these boaters, with the charters, this summer so they can get the documentation they need or the waivers.”

As for what will happen next year, Connor only hinted.

“Eventually, education and outreach gets to the point where you say ‘OK, we’ve done so much.’ There’s only so many speed signs you can pass without knowing you’ve broken the law.”