TOOL: Boater Registration Requirements

Posted: 03/04/2003
By: Jason Robertson
By Jason Robertson Access Director & John Gangemi Conservation Director

States with Registration Requirements
States Proposing New Registration Requirements
Reasons to Oppose Registration Requirements
What Should Be Included in a Registration Law
How To Fight a New Registration Bill
A Sample Letter

You can always tell a canoer or kayaker from Ohio, that's because they have been required to register their craft, pay a fee, and place big numbers on the side of their baots ever since the Ohio legislature figured out a way to "cheat" on their federal taxes and get more money from the federal government. The Ohio legislature figured that if they required all canoes, kayaks, and rafts to be registered along with motorboats as recreational watercraft, then they would be eligible for more Wallop-Breaux and other federal transportation funding.

Ohio is one of only seven states that currently require canoe and kayak owners to register or pay special taxes on their boats. The other states are Alaska, Illinois, Oklahoma, Iowa, Minnesota, and Pennsylvania. Arizona repealed their registration requirements in 2000 due in part to high administration costs and an ineffective ability to return services to the public.

However, in 2003, the number of states requiring new boater registrations could double!

Connecticut, Oregon, Washington, Maine, and Montana are all considering new registration requirements and Alaska's legislature is considering substantive changes to their existing state laws.


The arguments against forcing the public to register their canoes and kayaks are numerous. The first argument is that taxes and registration requirements are unpopular; however, there are many more serious and logical reasons for NOT requiring boaters to register.

  1. Registration fees are rarely used to benefit the paddlesports public. Typical boater registration legislation fails to establish a revenue mechanism for a non-existent program lacking a management plan and associated annual budget. Fees tend to be diverted for use at motor-boat launch sites, to fish and wildlife programs benefiting fishermen, or are returned to the state general fund.
  2. Registration programs are not cost effective. Most or all revenue generated is consumed by the cost of administration and what little remains is consumed by enforcement. Arizona finally dropped boater registration requirements in 2000 after years of operating in the red.
  3. Regulators rarely know who will be impacted. Regulators should not consider a registration requirement without first obtaining a realistic estimate of the number of human powered watercraft meeting the bill's definition.
  4. Regulators rarely know how much revenue will be generated. Without realistic participation estimates, there can be no clear estimate of the revenue potentially generated.
  5. Heavily developed public access and boat ramps are not typically desired. Most whitewater boating occurs in areas where the concept of public boating areas is unnecessary and obtrusive (the many creeks, trailheads, road crossings, pullouts, etc). Simply put, most boaters would rarely benefit from their registration expenditure nor would they want heavy development along the river corridor.
  6. Access typically exists where Wallop-Breaux funds would be used. Typically, the rivers that receive heavy use already have access areas or are located in state or federal parks or forests where access fees are already being charged.
  7. Permanent registration numbers are difficult to apply without damage to the craft and reduce resale values. The large coast-guard approved registration decals do not remain attached to kayak hulls very long because the boats are subject to heavy abrasion from rocks, trees and other objects found on rivers and streams. Further, the use of more permanent identification markings reduce the resale values of boats.
  8. Fees tend to be more punitive for canoe and kayak owners than motorboat owners. Whitewater boaters typically own more than a single canoe, kayak or raft. As a result, they pay a disproportionate share of boating fees as compared to the owner of a single, much more expensive powerboat. There is also a high rate of turnover of whitewater boats that make it difficult for both the owners and the administering agency to keep up with registration paperwork.
  9. Registration laws increase the operating costs for organizations. Thus the overhead increases for church and civic organizations, university programs, tour operators, commercial angling outfitters and whitewater outfitters, which might chill participation in the sport and the market.
  10. Registration requirements deter tourism. Since only a small handful of states require the registration and numbering of canoes, kayaks and rafts it creates an inconvenience and added cost for paddlers visiting a state with registration requirements. This discourages paddlers from coming to the state spending money for campgrounds, motels, food and gas eventually causing a decrease in tourism revenues and thereby negatively impacting the state economy.
  11. Registration does not increase or improve paddlesports safety. For instance in Connecticut, a bill was introduced in 2003 under the premise that it would improve safety; however, a study by the American Canoe Association found that the number of paddlesports fatalities in Connecticut has averaged 1.6 over the past 6 years. A registration requirement will not reduce the number of fatalities below 1.6 from the entire population of the state. Further, in a 1998 study, American Whitewater found that there were less than 2 fatalities per 100,000 participants. Again, registration will not reduce that rate since it is below the threshold for legislative efficacy and response.


Alaska Requires registration of all paddlecraft
Arizona Registration requirements repealed in 2000 due to lack of funding, high cost of administration, and ineffective ability to return services to the paddlesports community at a level corresponding to the fees.
Illinois Requires registration of all paddlecraft
Ohio Requires registration of all paddlecraft.
Oklahoma Requires registration of all paddlecraft
Iowa Requires registration of all paddlecraft
Minnesota Requires registration of all paddlecraft
Pennsylvania Requires registration of all paddlecraft using Fish & Boat Commission access points.




If your state legislators are considering a proposal to require canoe and kayak registrations, you should read the proposed language and determine whether it includes the following elements, if it does not, then the bill is not likely to be in your best interests.

  1. A budget dedicating the specific allocation of funds (with percentages) to natural resource protection and non-motorized river recreation programs including safety, education, acquisition, development, and maintenance of river access sites for paddlecraft.
  2. The establishment of a single agency with clear jurisdiction for managing river recreation throughout the state and the development with public participation of a comprehensive river recreation plan to manage use and funding needs.
  3. The recipient agency for the registration fees must have staff with expertise in whitewater education, safety, and rescue.
  4. In the development of potential government regulations, a management plan should be developed first to resolve user conflicts and protect natural resources, and only after the plan is complete should the revenue mechanism be designed and tailored to meet the plan to benefit the user groups being managed.
  5. A realistic estimate of the number of human powered watercraft meeting the bill's definition. Without this information, there can be no clear estimate of the revenue potentially generated or impact to the state's residents.
  6. A realistic estimate of the impact to the state's economy from negative impacts to tourism.


Whenever a bill is being consider that would require canoe and kayak registrations, AW is deluged by phone calls and email asking how to fight the legislation. Here are our recommendations based on our experiences.

  1. Forward an action alert to every boater you know (residents and non-residents), contact American Whitewater and the American Canoe Association.
  2. Send a letter expressing your objections and concerns to every member of the State House and Senate transportation committee and the committee where the bill is introduced indicating opposition and reasons. Call the Majority and Minority leaders and Committee Chairs. A sample letter is attached later in this document.
  3. Send a letter expressing your objections and concerns to the State Tourism Director.
  4. Call the media and write a letter to the editor of your paper explaining the negatives.
  5. Non-residents should inform Legislators that this registration fee would change your travel plans to the state, that you have other choices, and that the state will lose your tourist dollars.
  6. Express that this type of legislation should be the result of collaboration between paddling community and boating registration agencies. The legislation should not be drafted behind closed doors by a special interest lobby (such as motorboat owners) without participation by the paddling community.
  7. Express that this legislation will hurt the relationship between state boating coordinators and the public.
  8. Encourage the legislators to evaluate the potential first, and only then consider action.
  9. Express that registration requirements do not improve safety, since the fatality rate is super low, and will not be affected no matter how well intentioned the legislation.
  10. Dave Jenkins of the American Canoe Association (ACA) is a participating member of the Titling and Numbering committee of the National State Boating Law Admin (NSBLA). Jenkins has found that making an analogy to bicycling is an effective argument. Under this analogy, Dave asks "why should paddlesports such as canoeing and kayaking be treated any differently from bicycling?" The states put hundreds of thousands in bike trails, but they do not require them to be registered like cars because bicycling is viewed as a public good since it encourages health, is non-polluting, and reduces traffic congestion. Boating should be treated similarly, since it too benefits the environment compared to motor boating, reduces congestion on lakes, and contributes to public health.


This letter is being used in Montana to fight proposed legislation. It can be easily modified to reflect the legislation that is being proposed in your state.

[Insert Date]

Senator [First Name] [Initial] [Last Name]
P.O. Box 201706
Helena, MT 59620-1706

RE: Senate Bill 287: Bill to establish Montana Boater Registration Fee

Dear Senator [Last Name],

I urge you to oppose Senate Bill 287 or amend the current language so that watercraft powered by paddle, oar or sail are exempted from the $8.50 decal registration requirement. The bill is simply an attempt to generate revenue for the Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks but promises nothing in return to the non-motorized paddling community.

SB 287 parades as a revenue source for maintenance of fishing access sites yet the bill contains no language specifically dedicating a percentage of the funds for this purpose or any other program within Fish, Wildlife and Parks. Furthermore, requiring "boaters" to shoulder the burden for maintenance of fishing access sites assumes these sites are only occupied by this user group. Fishing access sites are utilized by a wide variety of shore and water based user groups. Most whitewater boaters also fish. As such, $1 of their fishing license fee is already dedicated to the acquisition and maintenance of fishing access sites. For anglers this equates to an additional fee to access Montana waters. In addition, private whitewater boaters rarely if ever use the few fishing access sites on whitewater reaches because they are inappropriately located relative to the desired put-in and take-out locations.

Clearly, river runners and in particular whitewater boaters will be taxed but receive no benefits. Most importantly, this Bill will discourage river recreationists from coming to the state causing a decrease in tourism revenues further impacting the state economy. This Bill is simply a funding mechanism with no clear management plan in place for administering the funds fairly and equitably to those that are taxed.

I urge you to oppose or amend this bill so that canoes, kayaks and rafts are exempted from the registration. The bill was drafted prematurely without a management plan in place identifying the user groups that should fund the program as well as allocation of the revenue fairly and equitably.


Your name
phone number

The Wallop-Breaux fund was established in 1984 and grew out of the Sport Fish Recreation Program of 1950. The fund is supported by fees and taxes on the sale of recreational fishing tackle and non-commercial motorboat fuel. The revenues are reallocated to the States, on a formula basis, to protect natural resources and enhance recreational fishing and boating opportunities for millions of Americans. Since its inception, more than $2 billion has been collected and allocated to the States.

While thousands of fish and boat access points have been developed with the use of these funds, the sites are typically designed to benefit recreational motorboat owners, rather than paddlesports enthusiasts. Doug Alcorn of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service wrote in the American Fisheries Society's journal "Higher rates of fishing and boating participation mean more license sales as well and Wallop-Breaux funds that support state resource management programs....Joe Janisch, president of the (AFS) Fisheries Administrators Section and chief of fisheries for the Arizona Department of Fish and Game, concurs, "....As biologists or administrators there is only so much we can do without customer support. Marketing to maintain or increase a recreational market share is where our power base lies. If we don't have the public (anglers and boaters) on our side, seeing the issues from our point of view, they will be on the other side asking us why."

Jason D. Robertson

635 Joseph Cir

Golden, CO 80403-2349

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