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Thursday, May 21, 2015

What to do about paddlers without paddles


Sometime in the past couple years, the residents along one or more of Rhode Island’s lakes and ponds got tired of competing with fishing tournaments every few weekends all summer long. The boat ramps were always crowded and the big bass boats were too fast and noisy. 

The cars with boat trailers filled parking areas and lined the surrounding streets, leaving residents unable to launch their own boats and with no place to park.

So as a solution, some of the neighbors formed their own fishing clubs and reserved the boat ramps for themselves to run fake tournaments. The Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management (DEM) gave the neighbors permits to run these fake tournaments; however, they weren’t real clubs and had no members, so no real tournaments ever took place. 

This made the neighbors happy, but real fishing clubs were upset. They were unable to find locations for the tournaments, which meant they were no longer able to have them.

Tournaments are a big source of revenue for most fishing clubs, so they complained to DEM. In recognition that boat registrations, fishing licenses and fishing equipment provide much of the revenue used to support the state agency, it sought a resolution through regulation change.

To solve this problem, DEM decided to update the state’s fishing regulations to help the fishing clubs. It changed the regulations to stiffly penalize any clubs or organizations that applied for a permit but didn’t use it for a tournament.

But why stop there? DEM updated the fishing regulations to indicate that any group with six or more people or three or more boats needed to have a permit.  This meant that if any organized group of recreational paddlers wanted to go canoeing or kayaking on a nice day, they would have needed to apply for a permit at least three weeks in advance. 

Since the permit requirement was in the fishing regulations and not in the boating regulations, both of which are contained within Rhode Island’s General Laws, most paddlers — boater, not fisherman — were unaware of the need to have a permit.

DEM later decided that only certain groups needed to apply for paddle permits and that it would change the requirements from six people and three boats to 10 boats. The agency even held a special hearing March 30, which we still don't know the results of. Then it started utilizing the new regulations before they were ever adopted. It even sent out the unapproved draft with requested permits.

Permits aren’t a bad idea, if you apply these rules to everyone, but DEM applies them only to organized groups — not to groups of college kids that rent canoes, buy a case of beer and float down the river, many without life jackets. Usually, the cases are empty by the end of the trip, with the cans left along the rivers for us to pick up. 

Most of the organized groups are serious paddlers, wear their life jackets and leave the beer at home. On many of our trips, we do collect as much as a case of empty beer cans.

Last Saturday, paddling with the Westerly Land Trust, I personally filled a large recycle bin with more than 50 beer cans, plus wine and liquor bottles collected along and in the Pawcatuck River.
What we would like to see is some commonsense regulations that treat everyone equally and fairly. 

We would like to see the rules applied to all large groups — 10 or more — without exception. We would like to see them enforced fairly and equally. We would like to see the boating rules in the boating regulations and fishing rules in the fishing regulations. Let fishing and wildlife handle the fishing and hunting regulations. Let parks and management areas handle all the others as they have always done.

We should be treated just like all other users of the Rhode Island management areas.

Rhode Island resident Jim Cole has been a member of Rhode Island Canoe & Kayak Association for three decades, is a member of the Blackstone Valley Paddle Club, is paddling instructor/guide and is a member of the Rhode Island Rivers Council, appointed by former Gov. Lincoln Chafee.

Editor’s note: A public hearing regarding these regulations is scheduled for May 26 at 7 p.m. at the Warwick Police Station, 99 Veterans Memorial Blvd. in Warwick, R.I.