Suit filed over license requirement for dive boats

Posted: 07/15/2011 in all marine news

Susan Cocking – 

A scuba diving trade group filed suit Monday in Tallahassee to try to stop the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission from enforcing a costly charterboat license law in advance of the two-day lobster mini-season July 27-28.

The complaint, filed by attorney Bob Harris of the Diving Equipment and Marketing Association (DEMA) in Leon Circuit Court, says the statute amounts to an illegal license fee on recreational dive charter vessels imposed during their busiest time of year.

“It’s not right how they’re doing it,” Harris said. “We need enough time to let our people know the new rules and new procedures.”

At issue is a section of Florida law that says no one may operate a boat and charge customers a fee for the purpose of taking a saltwater fish for noncommercial purposes unless the boat operator has purchased a license for each vessel, which can range from $200 to $2,000 per year. The law has been applied almost exclusively to charter fishing boats after a 1990 Palm Beach County Court ruling held that it didn’t apply to dive boats. Dive boats, the judge said, operate primarily to transport divers—not to take marine life.

But a June memo from FWC director of law enforcement Col. Jim Brown to his officers said vessel licenses are required for dive charter operators who offer trips for divers who intend to take saltwater products. If the vessel has a license, then customers would not need to have an individual saltwater fishing license ($17 for Florida residents) or lobster permit ($5). Citations would be written at an officer’s discretion, with penalties ranging from $50 to $100, plus the cost of a vessel license.

The FWC’s intention to enforce the law during the upcoming mini-season has the South Florida dive charter industry in an uproar.

Captain Jeff Torode, who operates two 35-passenger dive boats and one 12-passenger vessel in Pompano Beach, signed on as a plaintiff in the DEMA lawsuit. Torode says he does not intend to pay the $2,400 in license fees, and if cited, will fight it in court.

“The law is too vague to include us,” he said. “The majority of my passengers are not resource-takers. That is not our sole purpose. We shouldn’t be at the same fee schedule as a person that’s 100 percent take 100 percent of the year.”

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