Port of San Diego hopes to get a grip on illegal charters

Community input meeting is met with standing-room-only crowd, but solutions remain unclear.

SAN DIEGO — Frustration? Meet Bureaucracy. Bureaucracy? Meet Frustration. Tempers aren’t yet flaring but local anglers, boaters and other maritime professionals are engaged in a tense dance with Port of San Diego officials, with both sides trying to figure out how to address the topic of illegal charter operations. Also in the mix is the U.S. Coast Guard and San Diego city officials, meaning there are several thumbs in the pie.

Whether there are too many cooks in the kitchen remains to be seen, but there were certainly an overflow of attendees at a recent public workshop on illegal charter operations. Port district staff hosted the workshop in hopes of gathering as much input as possible within a one-hour span.

It could be a while before the provided input – and there was certainly plenty of input to go around – translates into tangible policy. Even more time would pass before whatever the Port of San Diego decides to enact trickles up north and (potentially) influences policymaking at other harbors and marinas.

The issue, of course, is the pursuit of operating a boating-themed business while circumventing already established regulations. There appears to be no shortage of people out there who offer fishing trips, harbor tours or whale-watching excursions without meeting Coast Guard or Port of San Diego requirements. These under-the-radar operations, in turn, avoid sharing a slice of their respective revenues with the port district, while also undercutting the regulation-complying competition.

Those illegal charter operators, coincidentally and obviously, were probably the only ones not attending the Port of San Diego public workshop (which was held at the port’s headquarters on June 4).

The regulation-complying operators – and those attempting to comply – took turns sharing their perspectives on how to minimize illegal charter operations, which happens to be a prevailing issue at several harbors. (The Log has already covered this topic in Dana Point and Marina del Rey, for example.)

Some believed stricter or more proactive enforcement of the rules and regulations already on the books would go a long way in reducing illegal charter operations in San Diego Bay.

Others worried the advent of illegal charter operations was the direct result of bureaucracy and frustration with the system. One person who moved to San Diego from Alaska, for example, stated he has been making every effort to start his own compliant charter operation but has been unable to do so because the port district makes it too difficult to succeed.

Yet another complaint: Marinas, which are given deference to provide charter operations with dock space, aren’t cooperating. Several charter operators who attended the June 4 workshop complained marinas don’t accept such vessels at their docks.

The advent of illegal charter operations translates into the industry as a whole becomes less and less lucrative for those who do follow the rules, according to one operator. Illegal charter operators charge lower rates, which means those who operate legally have to maintain low prices themselves just to compete. Yet how can regulation-following charters function financially whey they can’t make enough money to cover compliance issues or what they owe to the port?

Also complicating the issue is the multijurisdictional element of enforcing regulations. Agencies on the federal, state and local level are all involved.

San Diego’s Harbor Police, meanwhile, hopes to address the issue through increased education.

“I don’t want to criminalize everything. I don’t want to make this a law enforcement … issue,” Chief Mark Stainbrook told the standing-room audience at the June 4 workshop.

Stainbrook added it was his aim to share with as many people as possible the rules and regulations for them to follow. Yet some stated education is not enough, adding fines and enforcement of regulations already on the book must be part of the port district’s approach in addressing illegal charter operations.

Establishing dedicated public dock space for all charter operations or maintaining a sanctioned marina/landing was also suggested at the public workshop.

The port district also has to factor Mission Bay into the equation; the area north of the port district is within the city of San Diego’s jurisdiction. Any approved policy, ideally, would be a coordinated effort between the port district and San Diego City Hall, as to prevent illegal charter operations leaving the harbor and invading Mission Bay.


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Standing Watch/Take Action

In this section you will find resources and supplemental information on what you can do to Take Action. Submit additional information or tips on this issue to editor@thelog.com


Port district staff must still develop an initial ordinance and flesh it out before the Board of Port Commissioners takes up a vote on the issue. Accordingly there is still plenty of time for interested parties to chime in and make suggestions of what the port district should do. Here are the key contacts to reach out to:

San Diego Harbor Police

Officer James Dreher

619-686-6277, JDreher@portofsandiego.org

Chief Mark Stainbrook


Harbor Police Dispatch


Port of San Diego

Port President and CEO Randa Coniglio

619-686-6200, RConiglio@portofsandiego.org

Commissioner Rafael Castellanos


Commissioner Ann Moore


Commissioner Robert “Dukie” Valderrama


Commissioner Marshall Merrifield


Commissioner Garry Bonelli


Commissioner Dan Malcolm


Commissioner Michael Zucchet


City of San Diego

Mayor Kevin Faulconer


Francis Barraza



Twitter: @SDMayorsOffice

San Diego City Attorney

Mara W. Elliott

619-236-6220, MElliott@sandiego.gov, CityAttorney@sandiego.gov

Gerry Braun, Chief of Staff

619-236-6220, GBraun@sandiego.gov

Code Enforcement Unit


U.S. Coast Guard

Office: 619-278-7025

After Hours: 619-252-1304