With fishing season just beginning, charter boat captains who cross the border from Ohio into Canada could face increased regulations.
Last year, avid fishermen -- with nothing but a fishing license -- could take a charter boat across the Canadian border; however, charter boat captains will be forced this year to make sure all passengers have a photo ID and a birth certificate or passport.
The new regulation is more difficult than trying to leave the U.S. for China, said Mike Matta, who runs Matta Charter Fishing in Port Clinton.
"Why are they requiring more?" Matta said. "Why is it anyplace you leave the United States (is easier) except that Lake Erie borderline."
The increased regulations have been ongoing for the past several years to strengthen border security, but Rick Unger, president of the Lake Erie Charter Boat Association in Marblehead, said the regulations could adversely affect charter boat captains.
Unger said he and other charter boat captains are willing to comply with these new regulations, but is fearful that other regulations will follow.
During the Lake Erie Charter Boat Captain's Conference on March 1, a U.S. Customs and Border Protection officer said the status of charter boat captains has changed.
Charter boat captains were considered sport fishermen, but are now labeled as commercial fishermen, which carries more restrictions, Unger said.
Under the new status, charter boat captains will be required to report themselves and their passengers if they decide to cross the Canadian border, Unger said.
"We've never had to in the past to get pre-approval to leave Ohio," Unger said.
While the new restrictions appear to be a safeguard against terrorists infiltrating the country, Ottawa County Sheriff Bob Bratton said the new regulations seem excessive and could do more harm than good.
"It seems like we're targeting our charter boat captains, and we're going to choke them with rules and regulations," Bratton said. "Charter boat captains are not our enemies -- they're our friends.
"Charter boat captains are out on the water every day during the fishing season. They know the boats. I think that can be utilized to our benefit," Bratton added.
Why not just fish in Ohio waters?
Walleye, popular Lake Erie fish, tend to migrate between Ohio and Canada during June and July.
Because of the fish's migration patterns, Matta said he makes about 35 trips across the border in a typical season.
"All we're doing is fishing, and they know that," Matta said. "Sometimes you got to follow the fish."
Some of the best sport fishing spots are between Middle Bass Island and Pelee Island, Unger said. Most of that area is in Canadian waters.
"Responsibility to our clients is to show them a good time and give them the best opportunity to catch fish," Unger said. "To give them the best fishing, it often means I have to cross that border."
U.S. Customs and Border Protection spokesman Brett Sturgeon said the regulations are not new.
"It's always been the law," Sturgeon said. "It's just prior to creation of the CBP, neither customs nor immigration applied these laws on a consistent basis. That's why it seems brand new."
Unger said if charter boat captains comply with these rules, it could mean a huge influx of calls when they report their crossing. During the busy fishing season, more than 100 boats with a maximum of six passengers frequent the Canadian border.
If charter boat captains choose to ignore these new regulations, they could face steep penalties.
Bratton said that they could lose their fishing license and boat and pay heavy fines.
"That is a huge deal," Unger said. "If the government seizes our boat for not complying, we're out of business."
Sturgeon said the regulations are not meant to single out charter boat captains.
"It's the enforcement of the laws," Sturgeon said. "We're trying to enforce the laws that govern commercial vessels traveling in the Great Lakes."
Customs and Border Protection is reviewing the requirement that charter boat captains need to report themselves if they cross the Canadian border, Sturgeon said.
"We want to define other activity," Sturgeon said. "Is that the simple act of fishing or dropping anchor that constitutes a reporting requirement?"
Sturgeon said he expects to get an answer soon.
With fishing season underway, it's not clear when that decision will be made.
Fishing is a $300 million industry in Erie and Ottawa counties and accounts for 13 percent of the combined counties' $2.36 billion in visitor spending.
Anglers spend money on hotels, restaurants, fishing licenses and gear, said Larry Fletcher, executive director of the Ottawa County Visitors Bureau.
"Fishing is a huge contributor to the economy here," Fletcher said. "Not only does it bring in the anglers -- another day they might spend at an amusement park or museum."
Matta said more restrictions on charter boat captains could mean a ripple effect on the local economy.
"It affects everybody in the northern Ohio area," Matta said. "Fishing is pretty darn close to Cedar Point. You take fishing away from Port Clinton -- the city is going to dry up. It has that big of an impact."
What do I bring to go fishing?
* What's the issue? U.S. citizens could be forced to bring a photo ID and birth certificate or passport if they take a charter boat to fish in Canadian waters.
* What about children? Children age 18 years old and under, who do not have identification, can get a state-issued ID at their local Bureau of Motor Vehicles and will also be required to bring a passport or birth certificate.
* What about the Amish? The Amish, a large portion of avid fishermen, are also required to bring identification even though it is against their religion to be photographed. Amish can get an ID that does not include their photograph.
* What about charter boat captains? If they do not cooperate with these regulations, they could lose their boat and fishing license and face heavy fines, Ottawa County Sheriff Bob Bratton said.
* What's next? Charter boat captains and their passengers may have to bring a photo ID and a passport, starting June 2009. A birth certificate will no longer be accepted.
* Why? The U.S. Customs and Border Protection is reviewing the increased regulations that require additional identification when crossing the Canadian border, spokesman Brett Sturgeon said. It is not official yet.