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San Diego coalition hopes to combat illegal charters

Coast Guard, Port of San Diego, Harbor Police and city lifeguards team up to regulate passenger-for-hire activities.

SAN DIEGO — Should passenger-for-hire services be left entirely to the open market, free of government interference? Is formal regulation of illegal charters a means to ensure safety on the waters or another revenue stream for public agencies?

These are some of the reactions to attempts by the U.S. Coast Guard and regional policymakers to regulate unauthorized passenger-for-hire activities in local waters. Some argue the government is interfering in an honest economic activity.

Still others contend illegal charter regulations aren’t about safety as much as they are another way to extract money from everyday people just trying to enjoy a day on the water with others no different than King Leonidas’ stroll with 300 of his personal bodyguards at the behest of Sparta’s elder statesmen.

Downtown San Diego Waterfront
Parimal M. Rohit photo

The depth of illegal charter use in San Diego Bay might not be easily discernible. Enforcement of illegal charter activity mostly depends upon tips from community members or a random boat boarding by Harbor Police. Coordinated statistics of the frequency of illegal charter operations within the harbor are not readily available.

Perhaps a multiagency effort to address the illegal charter or passenger-for-hire activities in San Diego Bay could help provide some clarity.

There is a working group of federal and regional agencies hoping to change the tide and rewrite the narrative of charter regulations. This San Diego-based group is a joint effort bringing together federal (Coast Guard), regional (Port of San Diego and San Diego Harbor Police) and city (San Diego Lifeguard Service, City Attorney’s Office) agencies to combat illegal charter use in the nation’s southwestern-most urban metropolis.

Its efforts are a work-in-progress, but representatives from the aforementioned agencies all stated the working group’s goal is to work with all harbor users to foster education and promote safety.

Keeping the public educated and safe is juxtaposed with the difficulty of regulating illegal charter/passenger-for-hire operations, according to the Coast Guard’s investigations team. On the one hand, the working group brings several agencies and jurisdictions under one umbrella. However, specific regulations vary from region to region. What works in Los Angeles might not be the solution in San Diego (and vice versa).

Penalties, which are assessed on a case-by-case basis, for those caught conducting illegal charter or passenger-for-hire operations are another hurdle for the working group to overcome.

Since local laws and illegal charter practices vary from region to region the San Diego working group says it wants to focus on education. Some boaters might be unaware of local laws or where state and federal regulations overlap.

Providing passenger-for-hire operators with direction of what they can and cannot do is something the working group could prioritize and achieve.

One group who already has direction is the consumer. Members of the working group say consumers should be proactive and vigilant in identifying illegal charter operations and knowing where they are spending their money.

Does the charter’s captain have the necessary licenses and inspection certification? Does the vessel you are boarding have the requisite safety equipment onboard? Consumers should not be afraid to ask whether the charter or passenger-for-hire is a legitimate operation.

Suspect answers to questions of paperwork or legitimacy should raise red flags to the consumer, officials anywhere will tell consumers. Anyone suspected of running an illegal charter or passenger-for-hire should immediately be reported to the authorities, members of the working group stated. Passengers are never held liable for illegal charters or passenger-for-hire operations.

The working group in San Diego, at the end of the day, hopes to level the playing field. There are plenty of operators playing by the rules, members of the working group said. Why should they struggle to stay afloat at the expense of another charter operation skirting the rules, the working group’s members pointed out?

So what can customers and vessel operators alike do to limit the existence of illegal charters or passenger-for-hire operations out of San Diego Bay or any other harbor?

Staff from the Coast Guard, Port of San Diego and Harbor Police Department all said vessel operators should be aware of what they are doing. Consumers should ask questions of any vessel operator. Both parties should be in constant contact with law enforcement and let them know what’s happening on the water, the working group’s members stated.

In the meantime federal and regional officials hope to ramp up educational efforts to inform consumers what signs they should pay attention to in determining whether they’ve boarded an illegal charter or passenger-for-hire vessel.

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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

San Diego’s law enforcement personnel, port district staff and other officials want you to be in touch with them and inform them of what you see on the water. They also want to give you the tools you need to avoid boarding an illegal charter or running an unlawful passenger-for-hire excursion.

Just the same your input might be valuable in helping the agencies such as the Coast Guard and Port of San Diego shape its policies on illegal charter/passenger-for-hire activities.

Here are a few people you can contact to find out more information or provide tips of illegal charter/passenger-for-hire operations.

San Diego Harbor Police

Officer James Dreher



Det. Sgt. Magda Fernandez



Chief John A. Bolduc


Harbor Police Dispatch



Port of San Diego

Port President and CEO Randa Coniglio



San Diego City Attorney

Mara W. Elliott



Gerry Braun, Chief of Staff



Code Enforcement Unit



U.S. Coast Guard

LCDR Jamie Koppi, Marine Inspections