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Serving Northern St. Louis County, Minnesota

Coast Guard to step up enforcement on many area lakes

Marshall Helmberger
Posted 10/31/09

Coast Guard officials in Duluth say they’re planning a major enforcement effort on federally-navigable waters throughout the border country, and the fallout to local outfitters, fishing guides and …

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Coast Guard to step up enforcement on many area lakes


Coast Guard officials in Duluth say they’re planning a major enforcement effort on federally-navigable waters throughout the border country, and the fallout to local outfitters, fishing guides and others who carry passengers for hire could be significant.

Word of the Coast Guard’s push was made official this week during a lightly-attended meeting in Tower. Mike Lebsack, commander of the Coast Guard’s Marine Safety Unit in Duluth told a small group of area fishing guides that they will be subject to federal licensing and other requirements if they operate on federally-navigable waters. That designation includes all of the big border lakes, such as Basswood, Crane, La Croix, and Namakan, as well as Lake Vermilion and Moose Lake, near Ely.

According to Lebsack, the enforcement push is part of an effort to ensure the safety of visitors to the area. “I think we all want the same things for our visitors,” said Lebsack. “We want them to have a safe and memorable trip to northern Minnesota.”

The planned Coast Guard initiative isn’t the result of any new laws. “Most of these regulations have been on the books since 1968,” said Lebsack, who noted it was a lack of resources that prevented effective enforcement in the past. But in the wake of some prominent fatal accidents in other parts of the country in recent years, Congress appropriated more funding for enforcement, said Lebsack. “This is happening all across the country. It’s got high level support within the Coast Guard and it’s not going away,” he added.

While few would dispute the stated goal of the Coast Guard’s efforts, there is already plenty of criticism of their approach. “I’d say fifty percent of the guides on Vermilion are totally against it,” said Cliff Wagenbach, of Cliff’s Guide Service, who works mostly on Lake Vermilion. “I think some others are for it, because they think it will eliminate some of the competition.”

Some guides are already worried they could be among those operators forced out of business. Terry Sjoberg, who operates Ace Guide Service, and gets around with the assistance of a cane, worries whether he could pass the required physical or whether he’s mobile enough for the mandatory CPR training.

Those requirements are just two on a laundry list of steps that operators will need to take to obtain a federal license and identification card. All boat operators will now have to pass a training course, a background check, and a drug screening. They also must be enrolled in a random drug and alcohol testing program.

Completing the list won’t come cheaply. A Coast Guard document indicates the required training course will cost $750, while the obtaining a federally-issued identification card runs $132.50. In addition, operators will also need to pay for drug testing, physicals, and CPR and first aid training. All together, it’s likely to run $1,200 to $1,300 said Sjoberg, The license is good for five years, which reduces the annual cost, but Sjoberg says it’s enough expense and hassle that some of the part-time guides may just give it up.

Wagenbach agrees. “It will eliminate a lot of guides, or make crooks out them,” he said.

Towboats a special challenge

If fishing guides are concerned, the outlook for towboat operators could be even more problematic, since most rely heavily on high school and college students to operate their boats during the three-month summer season. Blayne Hall, of Williams and Hall Outfitters on Moose Lake, said the impact of requiring each of those students to obtain federal licensure and be enrolled in drug testing programs would be enormous. “If this does happen, it would be the most ridiculous affront to the people of the area,” he said. “I can not imagine these guys really wanting to fight this battle.”

Hall questions whether the Coast Guard understands how burdensome the new regulations could be. “They want a college kid who runs a boat up and down the lake with canoes to have the same licensure as someone captaining a fishing trawler in the Gulf of Mexico. It would sure be a huge economic impact to the area.” Hall notes that the Coast Guard has made similar enforcement pushes in the past, only to suspend their plans in the face of a host of political and logistic pitfalls.

Ely Mayor Roger Skraba said he doesn’t think that’s the case this time. “The Coast Guard is not going to back down,” he said. “I want my constitutents to understand that this is for real.” Skraba said he’s asked the Coast Guard to hold a second informational meeting in the next few weeks, in Ely, to get the word out to more affected business owners.

Skraba said operators will either have to adapt to the new regulations or fight for changes. “Maybe now we need to get Sen. Klobuchar and Franken and Congressman Oberstar in a room and get some changes made. “We want the public to know it’s going to be safe, but it’s unrealistic to impose standards designed for ocean travel,” he said.

Lebsack said the Coast Guard isn’t trying to put people out of business, and he said he plans to work with operators to help them comply with the laws. “There is some room in the rules for relief for some special situations,” said Lebsack. “I understand it’s difficult, there’s just no way around it,” he said.

Both Lebsack and Skraba said they will work towards establishing the required training courses at Vermilion Community College to make it more accessible to operators in the Ely and Tower area.

Penalties could be severe

While the expense and hassle of compliance could prompt some guides or other boat operators to try to skirt the rules, that could prove very costly, according to Lebsack. “If an operator is found operating without a license, or outside the scope of their license, the fine could be as much $27,500. That’s the maximum,” Lebsack said. Failure to be enrolled in a required drug testing program is subject to fines up to $5,500.

If such fines are sufficient, the Coast Guard has investigative powers that could thwart any efforts to get around the rules. For example, the Coast Guard can obtain an individual’s tax records to see if they reported income from guiding. It’s such powers that concern guides like Sjoberg, who worries he could be investigated if he can’t pass a physical to get licensed. “Will they be looking through my tax returns, or harassing me on the lake, to see if I’m still guiding?” he asked.

Wagenbach agreed. "It's going to be a real pain."

Coast Guard, federally-navigable waters, Vermilion, Moose Lake, Basswood Lake