MIAMI BEACH, Fla. – The U.S. Coast Guard is cracking down on illegal charter operations, following a recent uptick in the unsafe operation of passenger boats that weigh less than 100 tons.
On Sunday, members of the U.S. Coast Guard Station Miami Beach were on the lookout for fake captains manning illegal charters at Nixon Beach in Biscayne Bay.
Coast Guard Lt. Cmdr. Michael Cortese said a captain, who has passengers paying to be on board his or her boat, is required by law to have a merchant mariner's license.
It's "similar to a guy buying a bus and saying, 'Hey, I'm a bus driver today,' when he really doesn't have any of the safety equipment (or) proper licensing," Cortese said. "We are trying to get the message out to the people who charter a vessel that it is perfectly acceptable to ask the captain to see his license."
Local 10 News investigative reporter Christina Vazquez was given exclusive access to the operation, which led to the discovery of at least one suspected illegal charter Sunday.
"There were an excessive number of people on board the vessel. When I asked the master, there was no knowledge of any charter agreement," Cortese said. "We started querying some of the passengers who admitted that they had paid to charter the boat for the day."
According to the U.S. Coast Guard, if there are more than seven people on a boat, it is classified as a small passenger vessel, and a Coast Guard inspection is required. And if the captain is operating a special purpose vehicle, a certificate of inspection should be displayed. This applies to captains using smart phone apps.
The vessel busted Sunday was escorted back to shore, so that an officer could inspect the ship. The investigation will look into the number of people on board, and assess the monetary fine based on the severity of the offense, which is capped at $35,000, Cortese said.
WATCH THIS: Coast Guard on what to do when booking a charter
"These boaters wanted to come out and enjoy their day on the water. They decided to pay to do it, and they decided to pay somebody who wasn't licensed to do so," he said. "That, unfortunately, would cost everybody their boating day, but at least it was just their boating day and not their lives."
Cortese was one of several people who helped save 30 people and a dog after the boat they were on capsized in Biscayne Bay October 2013.
Police believe the boat was overloaded with people and didn't have enough safety equipment. The captain of that boat faced charges for not having a merchant mariner's license when he charged passengers to shuttle them from Brickell Key to Nixon Beach.
"It's a miracle nobody died," Ofc. Jorge Pino, of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, said at the time, in reference to the October 2013 incident. "You're not allowed to charge anyone any money to transport people from point A to point B if you're not a licensed captain."
Many consumers say they are not aware of Coast Guard-regulated safety requirements. It's a lesson Johnathan Chan said he learned the hard way.
"We didn't even have time to get life jackets. We all went into the water, and that's when we got our life jackets. They just started throwing out life jackets to people," Chan, who was hired to DJ that 2013 illegal boat charter, said. "Ask the captain for his license or whatever. If they don't have anything, then don't go."
WATCH THIS: Coast Guard on boating safety
For more information on passenger vessel requirements, and to verify any captain's credentials, visit the National Maritime Center's website.
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