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Northwoods guides say cost of Coast Guard plan is too steep

DULUTH -- Fishing guides on many lakes across northern Minnesota would have to be fingerprinted and spend up to $1,300 on federal exams to help their clients catch walleyes under a new U.S. Coast Guard policy.

DULUTH -- Fishing guides on many lakes across northern Minnesota would have to be fingerprinted and spend up to $1,300 on federal exams to help their clients catch walleyes under a new U.S. Coast Guard policy.

Guides and other commercial boat operators are angry and worried about the proposed Coast Guard licensing requirements.

"They're going to put hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of guides out of business," said Tom Neustrom, a longtime fishing guide from Grand Rapids, Minn.

Specifically, the Coast Guard has said it would begin enforcing a decades-old law requiring a so-called "six-pack" license for boaters who are paid to carry up to six passengers on federal navigable waters. The licenses are common on the Great Lakes, but until now the Coast Guard has chosen not to enforce the requirement for most small-boat guides on inland lakes.

The license requirement could have far-reaching effects in the tourism industry, affecting not only fishing guides but boat tour operators, canoe-outfitting tow-boat operators and summer camps.

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U.S. Rep. Jim Oberstar, D-Minn., has intervened, imploring Coast Guard officials to come up with other options, said John Schadl, Oberstar's communications director in Washington, D.C. Those efforts may be working, Schadl said.

"There's a compromise proposal there," Schadl said. "There does need to be some regulation of the guides, but (the six-pack license requirement) is certainly irrelevant if it's going to put people in the guiding community out of business."

Lt. David French, external affairs officer for the Coast Guard's Ninth District in Cleveland, confirmed last week that the agency is looking for ways to ease licensing requirements on guides and other small-boat operators while still ensuring safety on the water. He declined to be more specific about what options the Coast Guard is considering or when a decision might be made.

Meanwhile, fishing guides and outfitters remain deeply concerned about the potential licensing requirements.

"This is just another example of government trying to kill a fly with a sledge hammer and disrupting the activities of free enterprise in the process," said Chris Haley, a 15-year Bemidji fishing guide. "The trickle-down effect of this whole thing is monstrous, scary."

"People are calling me because they're afraid -- afraid of the Coast Guard," said Ted Gephart of Bayfield, Wis., who teaches the 57-hour course that most boaters take to prepare for the "six-pack" exam.

"This whole thing is a fiasco as far as I'm concerned," Neustrom said.

For years, the Coast Guard had chosen not to enforce the licensing requirement on many of Minnesota's federally designated "navigable waters."

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Charter captains on the St. Louis River and Lake Superior commonly hold the licenses, and guides on Rainy Lake must have the licenses if they wish to do business in the waters of Voyageurs National Park. So, too, do catfish guides to legally operate on the Red River in Grand Forks and elsewhere on the U.S. side of the Red.

But guides on Mille Lacs, Lake Winnibigoshish, Lake Vermilion and other "navigable waters" under federal designation typically don't hold "six-pack" licenses.

'Six-pack' defined

The so-called "six-pack license" is required of boat operators who carry up to six passengers for hire.

To get the license, a guide must pass a demanding Coast Guard test. Most boaters take a weeklong course at $750 to $1,000 to study for the exam. The exam itself is another $240. In addition, the "six-pack" license requires a Transportation Worker Identification Credential card, which costs $132, and includes fingerprinting. Boaters seeking the "six-pack" license also must pass a physical exam, a drug test and learn CPR. Total cost of the process could be $1,100 to $1,500, not including travel and a week's lodging to take the class.

The license is good for five years.

Neustrom said he thinks fishing guides should be licensed by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. But inland guides don't need to know about encountering large vessels on the Great Lakes or navigating on the Mississippi River, he said.

Billy Dougherty, a Rainy Lake fishing guide and owner of Rainy Lake Houseboats, has had a Coast Guard license for years. He thinks it's time for all guides to comply with the requirements.

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"I've had a burr under my saddle for 15 years because of the uneven enforcement," Dougherty said.

Dougherty estimates that 95 percent of guides on the American side of Rainy Lake have at least a "six-pack" license, about 25 guides in all.

"I do think it's overkill," Dougherty said.

He has never been checked on the water for his Coast Guard license, he said, although Coast Guard officials have inspected his records to make sure all guides hired by the houseboat company have met requirements.

'Navigable waters'

The federal government's definition of "navigable waters" includes many of Minnesota's inland lakes, although in many cases boaters are unable to navigate from one body of water to another.

A list of "navigable waters" provided by the U.S. Coast Guard includes all lakes that border Canadian waters; Ely-area lakes such as Moose, Newfound and Sucker; Kabetogama Lake; Namakan Lake; Lake Bemidji; Cass Lake; Gull Lake; the Kawishiwi River near Ely; Pokegama Lake in Grand Rapids; Lake Winnibigoshish near Deer River; Rainy Lake and the Rainy River; Lake of the Woods; and many more.

For part-time guides such as Bemidji's Haley, the math of a "six-pack" license just doesn't work.

"I'm basically going to be done," Haley said. "If I have to pay $2,000 to get certified, and I'm only going to make $4,000 next summer, I won't do it."

The Duluth News Tribune and the Herald are Forum Communications Co. newspapers.

Related Topics: FISHING
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