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Klobuchar pushes U.S. Coast Guard for fishing guide rule change

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Klobuchar pushes U.S. Coast Guard for fishing guide rule change
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President Barack Obama's nominee to head the U.S. Coast Guard got a boatful of advice Thursday from U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, DFL-Minn., on new regulations facing fishing guides.

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Vice Adm. Robert Papp Jr., Obama's choice to be commandant of the Coast Guard, had his confirmation hearing Thursday before the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee's panel which oversees the Coast Guard.

At issue is a newly promulgated rule that now requires small charter boat captains, including fishing guides, to obtain training and a special Coast Guard license. The Operator of Uninspected Passenger Vessels license, commonly called the "six-pack" license, is now required of those operating vessels that carry no more than six passengers for hire. Also part of the process is a background check and security screening and taking a test to prove proficiency in navigation and safety.

Opponents say the new requirement is onerous to inland guides, such as Lake of the Woods charter boat captains, or fishing guides on Bemidji and Walker area lakes.

"I pushed on him about the Coast Guard licensing regulation," Klobuchar said Thursday in a telephone interview. "I heard that time and time again when I was in northern Minnesota from Bemidji to Brainerd to Walker to I Falls about the concerns of fishing boat operators and the people in the BWCA."

Klobuchar said she had an "interesting exchange" with Papp, finding out that he was aware of the issue and that he was familiar with Minnesota waters.

"I didn't know that he had worked significantly in Minnesota," she said. "He was well aware of the problem and he actually said that he had seen Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox and stood next to them for a picture."

To obtain one of the new licenses, boat operators must attend dozens of hours of classroom work and pay $1,200 to $1,500, opponents say. For small fishing boat operators in northern Minnesota, that could put many out of business.

"He assured me that he would work on this in a sensible way, understanding that it would be very expensive if we didn't," Klobuchar said.

Meanwhile, Minnesota Natural Resources Commissioner Mark Holsten and a ranking Coast Guard officer from its Region 9 in Cleveland met Thursday in Klobuchar's Twin Cities office to discuss alternatives, the Minnesota Democrat said.

She noted that U.S. Rep. Jim Oberstar, DFL-8th District, has also been working on the issue.

Sport and recreation fishing contributes roughly $2.8 billion to Minnesota's economy every year, she said. Minnesota's federally navigable waters include many lakes in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, and others such as Rainy Lake, Namakan Lake, and Lake Mille Lacs. The Mississippi River, Minnesota River and Lake Superior are federally navigable, but most operators on those bodies of water are already licensed by the Coast Guard.

Klobuchar wasn't overly optimistic, but said that Papp "pledged to me they would be sensible in how they looked at this and how they enforce them, and they would try to find a way to ensure safety and also show common sense in requiring this much money and this much licensing."

The U.S. Coast Guard is under the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, and the new rules were seen as a way to tighten up who can operate vessels with small numbers of passengers, a rule especially geared for the southern coasts.

"We'll see what happens," she said. "He pledged to me that they would work on a sensible solution."

The Minnesota lawmakers "are pushing it so hard right now" in the hopes of having the rule changed before the May fishing opener in Minnesota, although any changes would be universal across the U.S.

Also continuing is a Minnesota Senate resolution authored by Sen. Mary Olson, DFL-Bemidji, which asks Congress to take action to block the licensing regulation on small inland boat operators.

Her bill is currently in the Senate Rules and Administration Committee, the last stop before reaching the Senate floor.

The legislation asks Congress to "speedily enact legislation" requiring the Coast Guard to "develop licensing appropriate to smaller vessels operating on inland waters and to establish interim enforcement that addresses safety issues without penalizing small vessel operators for issues that do not relate to inland lakes."

The resolution notes that there are 500 guides who take anglers on inland navigable waters and hundreds of resorts and businesses that offer casual boat and pontoon rides to their guests.

",,, the six-pack license was not designed for most inland lakes or rivers nor for small vessels such as 16- to 20-foot outboard boats," the resolution states.

A House companion, authored by Rep. David Dill, DFL-Crane Lake, is co-sponsored by Rep. Brita Sailer, DFL-Park Rapids.

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Pioneer staff reports
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