Charter fishing operations remain one of the Columbia estuary’s most colorful and interesting economic activities. They provide exciting experiences to thousands of people who would never otherwise be able to venture out on local waters.

Like any regulated industry – taxicabs come to mind – there is always a temptation among some to skip the licensing, insurance and safety requirements in order to offer a similar service. This essentially is what the U.S. Coast Guard alleges transpired last August in Chinook when Washington fisheries enforcement officers busted what they call an illegal charter operation.

Charges remain to be proven in this particular case. But there is no doubt that unlicensed charter and guide boats are a perennial nuisance both on the Columbia and in ports on smaller coastal rivers and bays.

Those who have forfeited their boats and paid steep fines for this practice are not typically outgoing in offering public justifications for their actions. However, they appear to believe that charter-fishing laws erect unfair barriers to free-market competition.

Clients who hire unlicensed boats may likewise feel they can obtain a lower monetary price for their trip – though they are sometimes wrong even about this superficial savings. Implicit in the decision to hire an illegal guideboat may also be the assumption that if an operator is willing to cheat on charter laws, they may also be more “flexible” when it comes to overseeing fishing regulations.

But as with stepping into an unlicensed “gypsy” cab in a big city, customers literally are placing their lives in the hands of someone who takes shortcuts in a whole array of troubling ways. Get into an accident, and you are quite likely to find yourself in a situation in which there is no legal recourse to obtain compensation for injuries or loss of life.

A primary reason for charter-fishing regulations are the strict rules for features such as life preservers, vessel inspections, skipper qualifications, insurance and other safeguards. Hiring a boat to go out on the river or ocean without any of these elements is extremely foolhardy.

As Chief Warrant Officer Howard McCarthy, investigating officer for the Coast Guard, said, “Charter operators require additional inspections and licenses. Illegal operators not only pose a safety hazard to those aboard their vessels and the vessels around them; they cheat the system and the legal charter businesses with whom they compete.”

Whether going out yourself, or setting up a trip for visiting friends or family, be certain to hire only a licensed charter boat.

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