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Rick Powers (left) and Merlin Kolb on the dock in Bodega Bay.
photo credit: James Reddick

A state agency is mulling new regulations requiring passenger fishing boats to upgrade to cleaner engines, but the state’s sportfishing boat operators say the proposed new rules could put them out of business.

On a sunny fall evening, the “New Sea Angler” pulls into Bodega Harbor. The 65-foot fishing boat belongs to Rick Powers, who has been taking clients off the Sonoma Coast for decades. Before they disembark, a group of veterans with a local nonprofit divvies up the spoils from their day on the water: rockfish, halibut and salmon. Charter boat owners warn that day trips like these could be in jeopardy if plans by the California Air Resources Board, or CARB, go into effect. 

Under the changes, the state’s approximately 350 commercial passenger fishing vessels will need to upgrade to what’s known as Tier 4 engines. CARB staffers say the amendments would address the industry’s air pollution and help the state reach its long term emissions goals. 

But Powers, who is also the head of a sportfishing association, says the changes are completely infeasible for small boat operators. He says he and his fellow charter boat operators have already been upgrading their engines over time. And they simply want the same rules that apply to the other commercial fishing boats with which they share harbors.

“These are all family owned businesses,” Powers said. “All of our boats have been upgrading to low emissions engines over the years. We’ve been led to believe we were following the right path. And now these new proposed regulations have told us that we are being asked to do something that is really financially unattainable for almost all the boats that I’m aware of up and down the coast.”

According to Bonnie Soriano, head of the Freight Activity Branch at CARB, air pollution regulations for the marine sector have lagged behind others. She says they are targeting passenger boats, rather than other fishing vessels, because boat owners can recoup their costs by raising prices for customers. 

According to CARB, boats with Tier 2 engines like the one Rick Powers captains emit 162 times the amount of particulate emissions as does a 5-year-old school bus. 

“The misunderstanding is that these emissions are offshore, and so they don't impact residents,” Soriano said. “That is not accurate. We've done really robust health modeling that shows that these emissions do impact those communities around the ports, and those communities tend to be disadvantaged and highly impacted by air pollution. It's our direction from our board to provide the most public health benefits that we can to those communities. And so, while we understand that the industry is concerned, we also take the importance of reducing emissions from this sector very seriously.”

But most wouldn’t consider Bodega Bay a disadvantaged and polluted community, and many sportfishing charter boats leave from and return to ports located in areas where tourism is an economic engine. For boat owners, replacing an engine isn’t quite as simple as it sounds. Tier 4 engines exist for trucks and other sectors, but as of yet the technology may not be available for boats of this size. It is unclear if the engines, and the required particulate filters, would fit on existing vessels. In such a case, CARB says owners would need to replace their boats entirely.  

“The issue with sportfishing vessels is that the design of the vessels maximizes passenger space, and so the engine rooms can be pretty small,” Soriano said. “And so while the engines and the diesel particulate filters exist, sometimes they don't exist in the size that fits into the existing footprint of the engine room.” 

Soriano said CARB is working with manufacturers to find solutions to this problem, but that there will likely be cases where installing a new engine is not feasible. That is why, she said, the regulations include extensions of up to eight years for boat owners, to give the industry time to adapt. Without an extension, the regulations would go into effect for some boats in 2023, with cleaner existing engines needing replacement by 2030 at the latest.

Merlin Kolb, who captains a six-passenger catamaran in Bodega Bay, said he has no plans to comply with the regulations. He said the amendments would sink the value of his current boat and that potentially spending half a million dollars on a new one is unrealistic.

“This regulation as proposed would absolutely decimate my business,” Kolb said. “CARB has said publicly that if motors aren’t available to be installed into your vessel that we’re supposed to sunset my vessel and buy a new one. I’m not going to do that. That’s going to move me out of California and straight to Brookings, Oregon. The mission statement of the Department of Fish and Wildlife says that they will guarantee access to the sea for state residents. The end result is that charter boats that I was able to go on as a youth are not going to be available for the youth of tomorrow. They are blocking the access to the sea by putting me out of business.”   

CARB is taking public comment on the proposed amendments to CARB until November 15. On November 19, the proposals will be presented to the agency’s board during a public meeting. A decision is expected by next spring.


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