DESTIN, Fla. – A task force led by the U.S. Coast Guard (USCG) recently terminated multiple charter voyages near Destin over safety risks, the USCG has announced.
The Coast Guard-led Gulf Coast Illegal Charter (GCIC) Task Force terminated the voyages for allegedly operating in violation of the Passenger Vessel Safety Act during an operation conducted on July 29-30, 2023.
Task force members conducted multiple boardings on suspected illegal charter vessels. Task force members include Coast Guard Station Destin boarding team members, Coast Guard Sector Mobile Marine Investigators, and Okaloosa County Sheriff’s Office deputies.
According to the USCG, on July 29, the task force detected an operator carrying 10 passengers aboard a pontoon vessel. Reportedly, upon boarding, it was discovered that the vessel was not certificated by the Coast Guard. Additionally, the operator of the vessel was not properly licensed and failed to enroll in a chemical testing program, the USCG said.
Afterward, the task force boarded and terminated another voyage carrying 41 passengers, including 11 children. Alleged violations included failure to produce the Certificate of Inspection onboard and failure to carry a sufficient number of personal flotation devices.
The following day, the task force terminated three additional illegal charter voyages.
Task force members discovered vessels exceeding passenger limitations, masters not properly credentialed, and vessels not inspected to ensure seaworthiness.
Operators were determined to be operating illegally as they failed to provide a Certificate of Inspection while carrying more than six passengers for hire, failed to have a properly credentialed mariner in control while operating a small passenger vessel, and failed to comply with the requirements concerning chemical testing for marine operators.
The GCIC Task Force comprises over 15 federal, state, and local law enforcement partners across the Gulf Coast who specialize in investigating illegal charter activity and taking necessary action. The task force remains active across Florida, Alabama, and Mississippi and has opened investigations into 20 illegal charter operators since March of this year.
“The Coast Guard, alongside our task force partners, is unwavering in our dedication to safeguarding the public and of our nation’s waterways,” said Capt. Ulysses Mullins, commander of Coast Guard Sector Mobile.
“Our utmost priority is to combat this type of illegal activity due to the inherent safety risks posed. We assure you that the task force will persistently pursue and hold accountable those involved in such illegal operations. We strongly encourage the public to verify whether the operator possesses a Merchant Mariner Credential. If not, under no circumstances should you board that vessel.”
Owners and operators of illegal passenger vessels may be subject to civil penalties of $60,000 or more for illegal passenger-for-hire operations. Charters that violate a Captain-of-the-Port Order may be subject to civil penalties of $111,000 per violation.
Some potential civil penalties for illegally operating a passenger vessel are:
- Up to $9,086 for failure of operators to be enrolled in a chemical testing program.
- Up to $5,661 for failure to provide a Coast Guard Certificate of Inspection for vessels carrying more than six passengers for hire.
- Up to $19,324 for failure to produce a valid Certificate of Documentation for vessels over 5 gross tons.
- Up to $14,149 for failure to have been issued a valid Stability Letter prior to placing vessel in service with more than six passengers for hire.
Mariners suspecting a passenger vessel is operating illegally should immediately contact Coast Guard Sector Mobile by VHF-Radio channel 16, by phone at (833) 668-8724 or email MobileSCC@uscg.mil.