Jan. 21, 2006 – Members of the charter yacht industry didn't receive any quick solutions from two U.S. Department of Homeland Security officials Saturday evening to recent negative changes in regulations.
However, they did get a promise that the department would "look into" their concerns.
The officials – John Wagner, director of Passenger Automation Programs, Office of Field Operations; and Thad Bingel, assistant commissioner, Office of Congressional Affairs – had been invited by Delegate Donna M. Christensen to address the concerns of the local charter yacht industry.
Last year, Homeland Security had implemented a passenger information reporting regulation that required all passenger-carrying commercial vessels to submit passenger and crew information 24 hours before arrival and departure between the U.S. and foreign waters.
This change in the regulations caused numerous problems and inconveniences for local charter boat owners, many of whom complained that the reporting procedures online were not user-friendly and were costing them business opportunities. (See
"Christensen Tells Charter Boat Operators She is Still Working On Waiver".)
"Certainly, this is a unique situation here for Customs and Border Protection," Bingel told those in attendance at the meeting at American Yacht Harbor's Marlin Deck. "We don't pretend to have all the solutions here today, neither do we pretend that they have the solutions up in Washington."
Bingel said he and Wagner were "really here to listen."
"It's good to come out and see some of the impact of this regulation," Wagner said. Both Wagner and Bingel had gone out on a yacht earlier Saturday to experience first hand what the charter boat owners were going through.
Wagner said due to the unique characteristics of the territory, the charter boat owners were experiencing some difficulties in following the regulations. He asked those in attendance for suggestions and ideas on improving the situation.
Judy Knape, charter boat captain, said the electronic process of completing Notice of Arrivals and Departures needed to be "streamlined." Knape said the process was too time-consuming and asked whether they could fax the information to Customs and Immigration.
"We're not bringing in anybody that wasn't here in the first place," Knape said, adding that more of the tourists were going to the British Virgin Islands on the ferryboats because they did not have to submit to all the hassle of the regulation.
She asked whether there was a way to eliminate doing the paperwork ahead of time.
Jay Bolton of Cruz Bay Water Sports said he did not see why the charter boats had to submit to the regulation because they were more "conservative" than the ferries. Bolton said they transport the same passengers to and from the BVI and sometimes do not even let them off the boat when doing tours.
"Can we go back and get a variance [on this regulation]?" Bolton asked.
"We do not want to go backward," Wagner said. "I would rather go forward with the ferries and get them to fill out the passenger information system forms as well."
Ferry boats are currently exempt from the reporting regulation and do not have to submit the passenger information forms at this time. However, Homeland Security is considering amending the regulation to include ferryboats in the reporting requirements as well.
Wagner said the Virgin Islands was not the only jurisdiction facing problems because of the changes to the regulation.
"You're not alone in that there are other areas with similar challenges in the marine context," Wagner said, adding that South Florida, the Great Lakes area and the Pacific islands, also are experiencing similar issues.
Margaret Smith of Smith's Ferry said she did not want to focus solely on the passenger information system because she had a problem with all the Coast Guard regulations.
"You're applying things and making us spend a lot of money, when the reality is we're only going right there," Smith said. "We never leave the sight of land, yet we're required to have everything a cargo ship or cruise ship from New York to London has.
"Pay a little bit more attention to how these regulations affect us."
Wagner asked if anyone had submitted formal comments at the time when the rules were being developed.
Pamela Wilson, president of the V.I. Charter Yacht League, said no, because they were told the rules did not apply to them since they were less than 300 tons. It was only last year that the Coast Guard changed the rules to include commercial vessels under 300 tons, Wilson said.
Wilson asked if the Virgin Islands could receive an exemption or the regulation be rescinded.
"I don't think we will rescind it," Wagner said. "But I promise you, I will take a look at it. "
One charter yacht captain asked what were the Customs and Immigrations reservations in granting the Virgin Islands an exemption.
"We're trying to build a universal policy that applies to everybody who are commercial operators across board," Bingel said. "If we give you an exemption, I'm pretty sure that some other area will come up with a unique situation affecting them.
"I don't know that the answer is continuing to make exemptions to the passenger information system regulations. I don't think we have the answer here today."
Wagner told the charter boat owners that they received a lot of information from them and would try to work on the situation.
Christensen told those in the audience that the meeting was mainly a listening session, but added, "We're going to continue the process on your behalf in Washington."
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