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Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Paddle Power!

By DAVID SMITH/ecoRI News contributor

A 3-year-old Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management (DEM) fishing rule that was designed to regulate boaters’ use of access points on rivers and ponds is being changed.

The rule was criticized by several groups last year, including the Rhode Island Rivers Council, the Wood-Pawcatuck Watershed Association and the Rhode Island Canoe & Kayak Association.

The rule currently requires that any group of six people and/or three boats is prohibited from going on a paddle without DEM permission. That permission must be obtained at least three weeks prior to the outing and, afterward, a report must be filed stating who went on the outing.

Groups said there was no distinction between organized paddles and several friends who decide on a weekend to head out on Rhode Island waters. It seemed that the group of friends would need DEM permission or be in violation.

A proposed rule would distinguish between weekend paddlers and organized paddle groups. It also would increase the number that would trigger a needed permit to 10 or more boats, rather than the current three.

The proposed rewording states: “For the purpose of this regulation, organizational boating, fishing or educational activities are defined as being conducted by an organization which has an administrative and functional structure for participants who are members or affiliates of said organization.”

Wood-Pawcatuck Watershed Association program (WPWA) director Denise Poyer spoke to the Rhode Island Rivers Council last August urging it take action and seek a change in the regulation.

Poyer recently said that she didn’t see the proposed changes as “winning a battle, but rather making sure that the public is heard when regulations impact them.”

“I believe the authors of the original regulations did not realize the extent of the audience they would affect or the burden they placed on users other than fishing tournaments,” she said. “For most people paddling in the watershed, the regulations will have no effect whatsoever. These rules are really aimed at organized groups using the river. I still have questions about the revised rules and am waiting to see how they are answered.”

A public hearing on a final draft of the proposed changes hasn’t been scheduled. Charlestown resident Jim Cole, a member of the Rhode Island Rivers Council and vice president of the Rhode Island Canoe & Kayak Association, has been working on getting the regulation changed for the past six months. He, too, is awaiting word on when the hearing will be held; he expects a meeting will be scheduled sometime in early February.

A freshwater fishing guide is published by the state annually and is distributed with fishing licenses. Licenses for the 2015-16 season will be available at the end of February.

“The department is attempting to address a change as soon as possible through the administrative process, hopefully this spring,” DEM spokeswoman Gail Mastrati said. “With consideration of printing deadlines, at this time we do not know whether the new regulations will be printed in the freshwater fishing guide.”

Mastrati said it’s the department’s aim to ensure that all users of freshwater access areas are treated fairly and not unnecessarily burdened, while avoiding conflicts of use.

Cole said he has been working with DEM deputy chief Christine Dudley at the Great Swamp field headquarters in South Kingstown on changes to the regulation. He has edited it and made suggested changes.

The Rhode Island Canoe & Kayak Association has been getting permits for the past 15 years, Cole said, ever since the National Park Service began to require them of groups paddling the Blackstone River. He said that when the group meets in March to determine a paddling schedule for the year it sends the list to DEM.

The WPWA basically does the same thing. The organization hosts paddling outings from its campus at the Barberville Dam access point. Poyer wants it clarified whether a permit is needed in that case since outings take place on the organization’s property and whether it can get a seasonal permit for all of its programs.

Both Poyer and Cole also said the regulation should address other types of water craft regardless of propulsion to cover any new trends in recreation.

Cole said the Rhode Island Rivers Council met Jan. 14 and members seemed pleased with the proposed changes.