San Diego port district delays discussion on illegal charters

Proponents of the proposed amendment need more time to review certain details of the policy update.

SAN DIEGO—The Port of San Diego’s Board of Port Commissioners punted on a policy discussion about illegal charter operations. Port staff, according to sources familiar with the proposal, need more time to review some of the possible effects of the proposed charter vessel ordinance. The proposed ordinance was on the board’s Oct. 6 meeting agenda but was pulled from consideration a few hours before commissioners met virtually.

Commissioners were set to specifically discuss whether to approve an amendment to the port district’s “Six Pac Charter Vessels” regulation. The proposed amendment would, in an attempt to curb illegal charter operations, give qualified commercial vessel operators an option to use port district venues for their services. Venues would include Shelter Island Guest Dock, Pepper Park in National City, Chula Vista docks and public boat launch ramps.

The port district has been regulating Six Pac charter vessel operations since 2001, according to a staff report prepared for the board’s Oct. 6 meeting. The ordinance enacted in 2001 specifically applied to Six Pac charter vessels.

Board members were set to consider an amendment to the ordinance on Oct. 6, which would have expanded the ordinance to address all charter vessel operations.

“The proposed amendments to existing San Diego Unified Port District … Code … are intended to address all charter vessel operations with the goals of  ensuring public safety, protecting consumers, and creating an even playing field for all charter vessel businesses, which include [port] district tenants, subtenants and those charter vessel operators wishing to use district facilities,” a staff report prepared for the board’s Oct. 6 meeting stated. “Charter vessel operators are broadly defined to include whale-watching boats, party boats, special event charters and sportfishing, among many others.”

Port district staff has been trying to get ahead of the charter vessel issue for years.

“In recent years, members of the commercial boating community have raised concerns about alleged illegal charter vessel operations to be non-compliant with relevant laws and regulations applicable to charter vessel operations and an inconsistent application of permitting requirements,” port district staff said in a report to board members. “Concerns have included claims of non-compliance with Coast Guard licensing and regulations, lack of adequate insurance, unsafe conditions or operations, lack of an appropriate agreement or any contractual relationship with a marina or sportfishing landing, and avoidance of rent payments to the district for conducting charter vessel operations.

“Businesses that do not comply with well-established existing laws and regulations can jeopardize public safety and have an unfair competitive advantage over legitimate charter operators,” port district staff continued.

An interagency effort to address illegal charter operations was created in 2018. Community meetings have been held and ordinance amendments drafted since June 2018.

The latest iteration of the proposed ordinance amendment would require all charter vessel operations in San Diego Bay to obtain a permit, among other things.

“The proposed amendments to UPD Code Section 4.37 will require every charter vessel operation to obtain a Charter Vessel Operations permit … at a nominal annual cost, and pay revenue to the district through a sublease summary or wharfage agreement with a marina or sportfishing landing,” port district staff explained about the proposed ordinance amendment. “Charter vessel operators not conducting business from a marina or sportfishing landing will be required to enter into a license agreement with the district which will provide for the payment of a fee for the use of district facilities.”

There are several requirements to obtain and maintain a permit. Those requirements include: A Coast Guard-licensed captain must be aboard; vessel must have a valid Certification of Inspection; vessel operator must be able to provide valid vessel documentation and registration; and, the operator must maintain the vessel’s seaworthiness, among other obligations.

Financial penalties could be imposed for anyone found guilty of operating an illegal charter operation.

Illegal charter operations in San Diego Bay have consistently been reported by The Log for the past few years. This story will be updated once the matter comes back to the board. No timeline was given as to when port district staff will present the proposed charter vessels ordinance to the board.

The board could approve the ordinance amendment as proposed, send the item back to port district staff and direct them to make changes, or reject the proposal altogether and ask for a new proposal.

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