Dont look for the U.S. Coast Guard to endorse a bill proposed in Congress that many in the territory believe would help revitalize the charter boat industry.
On Thursday, Delegate to Congress Donna Christian Christensen said she re-introduced her bill that would exempt small passenger vessels operating in U.S.V.I. waters from Coast Guard inspection. However, the Coast Guard brass in Washington fears it could compromise passengers' safety.
The bill would reverse a section of the Passenger Vessel Safety Act of 1993 that limits to six the number of paying passengers that may be carried aboard uninspected vessels weighing less than 100 gross tons. Many boats under 100 tons today have the capacity to carry eight or 10 guests.
Representatives of the local charter yacht industry say the six-passenger limit, or "six-pack" rule, has prompted most boat owners who can accommodate more passengers to relocate in the nearby British Virgin Islands.
"With the introduction of the six-pack rule exemption bill, I am once again announcing my intention to work with members of the Virgin Islands boating community to re-invigorate our boating industry," Christensen said.
Support from the Coast Guard command in Washington, D.C., however, isnt likely. During a meeting of the V.I. Senate Finance Committee on Thursday regarding the marine industry, USCG Lt. Keith Pelletier, supervisor of marine safety on St. Croix, provided a statement saying that on a local level, the Coast Guard is not opposed to the six-pack waiver.
"Although we and our parent command, the Coast Guard Marine Safety Office in San Juan . . . provided positive comments regarding the proposed 12-pack amendment, the ability to change the existing law is above our level of authority," Pelletier wrote.
But in its official comments on Christiansen's bill, the Coast Guard said that allowing some small passenger boats to avoid inspections and stringent requirements would "reduce the publics confidence in the safety" of the boats in question.
"This bill would reduce the margin of safety for charterers and passengers on the excepted vessels operating on waters of the Virgin Islands," the Coast Guard said. "Accordingly the Coast Guard cannot support its enactment."
Despite that opposition, which has been ongoing for three years, Christensen said she is optimistic about the bills chances.
"Because former Resources Committee Chairman, Don Young is now chairman of the Transportation Committee which will oversee the six-pack bill, our prospects for getting positive action it will be greatly enhanced," Christensen said. "Chairman Young visited the Virgin Islands last year. He is well aware of the challenges to our local economy and has pledged to do all he can to help us."
Meanwhile, the local Finance Committee, chaired by Alicia "Chucky" Hansen, heard testimony Thursday in St. Croix on the state of the territorys marine industry. The industry has shrunk from a $100 million-a-year enterprise in the 1980s to about $30 million by 1993, according to a 1994 position paper by the V.I. Marine Industries Association.
Richard Difede, president of Gold Coast Yachts on St. Croix, said St. Croix is ideally suited to cater to the marine industry because of its location. However, he said a business-friendly attitude is needed to capitalize on the possibilities.
"Its a huge economy that could be created," he said, noting that the marine industry in Floridas Broward County generates some $4 billion a year.