Boater Registration

You can always tell a canoeist 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 boats 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 Arizona repealed their registration requirements in 2000 due in part to high administration costs and an ineffective ability to return services to the public.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, the number of states proposing new boater registration programs continues. Connecticut, Oregon, Washington, Maine, New Hampshire and Montana are all considering new registration requirements and Alaska's legislature is considering substantive changes to their existing state laws.

States With Canoe & Kayak Registration Requirements

AlaskaRequires registration of all paddlecraft
ArizonaRegistration requirements repealed in 2000 due to lack of funding, high cost of administration, and ineffective ability to return services to the paddlesports community at a level corresponding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.
IllinoisRequires registration of all paddlecraft
OhioRequires registration of all paddlecraft.
OklahomaRequires registration of all paddlecraft
IowaRequires registration of all paddlecraft
MinnesotaRequires registration of all paddlecraft
PennsylvaniaRequires registration of all paddlecraft using Fish & Boat Commission access points.\\

States Recently Proposing New Registration Requirements

New Hampshire Updated 12/10/06

The Wallop-Breaux Fund

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.”

Determining Whether a Registration Bill is in The Public Interest?

In theory, boat registration could be a good thing in that it could provide improved public access, riparian land conservation, and politial representation for paddlers by a state agency at little expense or inconvenience to paddlers. The reality of these programs however, is that because of the way most are designed, few of these benefits would be realized and the impacts on the paddling community would be severe. 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.

The Red Flags of Boat Registration

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 are 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. The use of 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.

How Can You Fight A Bill That Proposes The Registration Of Paddlecraft?

Whenever a bill is being considered 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.

River Safety and Boat Registration

Non-Powered Boat Registration & Mandatory Education: Bad Ideas for Good Reasons

Paddlesport safety has become a legislative issue. Bills requiring registration of non-powered boats or mandatory training for non-powered boaters (or both) have been developed in Montana, Maine, Oregon, Connecticut, North Carolina, and Washington State. This may be the beginning of a national trend.

It's a mistake to characterize these efforts strictly as a fund-raising effort by government agencies. Granted, registered boats do qualify states for various federal transportation dollars. But these subsidies are declining, and administration fees quickly eat up the monies raised from these efforts. State boating agencies know this. Rather, registration is seen by these agencies, and the U.S. Coast Guard itself, as a way to further their statutory mission to improve safety on the nation's waterways. Registration is seen as a way to help them get a better count of the actual number of non -powered paddlers, and to help them communicate with an audience which, up until now, has been rather elusive.

The U.S. Boating Safety Community

After World War II recreational boating in the United States increased sharply, as did the number of accidents. The U.S. Coast Guard Office of Boating Safety was created to anchor a federal effort to reduce accidents on U.S. waterways. The Boating Safety Act of 1972 required each state to designate a boating law administrator to enforce federal boating laws and to report serious accidents to the Coast Guard. The designated agencies, which vary by state, include Departments of Environmental Protection, Natural Resources, Parks, Fish, Game, and Marine. In a few instances the designated agency is the State Police. The National Association of State Boating Law Administrators (NASBLA) is made up of all of these department heads, plus U.S. Coast Guard personnel. They meet regularly to discuss future safety strategies. Like many disciplines, their interests and focus changes. Right now a lot of them are looking at canoes and kayaks.

There are two other important boating safety organizations. The National Water Safety Congress (NWSC) was founded in 1951 to coordinate the educational and safety programs of affiliated organizations. Here organizations with extensive areas of water, like the Corps of Engineers, power companies, water districts, state parks, and federal land managers meet to discuss common problems. The National Safe Boating Council (NSBC) serves as a bridge between government agencies, businesses and non-profits. It is quite diverse: member organizations include powerboat interests and manufacturers as well as groups like the Boy Scouts, American Canoe Association, and the American Red Cross. These two organizations jointly put on the Water Safety Summit each year which is heavily attended and very influential.

There are about 13 million registered powerboats in the U.S. The “marine industry” is much bigger than paddlesports, and most government officials come from this background. Powerboat manufacturers and industry groups are strongly represented in boating safety organizations, and discussion usually centers on issues important to them. All powerboats are registered, and as with automobiles and there are good reasons for doing this. The funds help support the investments in channel marking devices like buoys and lights and provide a law enforcement presence on heavily used ocean and lake venues. Registration numbers are helpful to law enforcement officers when probing thefts or investigating accidents involving several boats. They are also useful to finance companies when keeping track of the boats that they've helped people buy. Considerable money has been invested in access areas with the large parking areas and concrete launch ramps that these users require.

Non-powered boats are extremely diverse. Sailboat designs range from sporty sailfish or sailboards to large ocean-going ships. There are specialized craft like rowing shells, utilitarian vessels like rowboats, dinghies, and john boats, and of course, all types of canoes and kayaks. Most are used on inland waters, far from any powerboat. Launch areas are usually informal, and seldom require extensive construction. The “rules of the road” are not particularly relevant except when paddlers go into high-traffic powerboat areas. Financing and law enforcement issues are minimal, and buoys are seldom required. Many people in state and federal boating agencies come from powerboat backgrounds, and are unfamiliar with non-powered craft. While it's true that some people in state agencies have made solid attempts to reach out to the canoe and kayak community, it's also the case that a determined minority is truly hostile to our interests.

Safety in non-powered craft depends less on its design and much more on the skill and judgment of the user. It's hard to visualize a meaningful mandatory education program that works for all types of non-powered craft. You can't teach skills because the audience is too diverse. So you provide classroom or on-line instruction followed by multiple-choice tests that cover basic information that can be easily summarized in a short pamphlet. The bureaucracy needed to distribute the tests, teach the classes, track the results, and issue the “cards” is not cheap to operate. There's also a real problem with carrying the cards themselves in wet, active sports.

The challenge is clear. We are a small minority in the recreational boating community. The challenge is to be a smart and well organized to protect our interests. We must pay attention to this vital sector of government, cooperating when it's possible and organizing opposition when necessary. The American Canoe Association has been working on this stage for years, and is becoming increasingly effective. They deserve our support.

The Argument for Registration

Much of the pressure to register canoes and kayaks stems from an undisputed fact: paddlesport fatalities have remained relatively constant for the past 20 years while powerboat fatalities have declined. There are roughly 700 boating fatalities nationally, of which about 500 involve powerboats. About 90 involve canoes and kayaks and less than half of these occurred in whitewater.

Recently the respected U.S. Coast Guard “JTS Study”, which evaluates the risks of using different types of watercraft, singled out paddlesports as being the most dangerous form of boating activity. But according to the ACA publication “Critical Judgment”, their study was flawed in the way it collected vital paddlesports data. To determine the actual time spent in each type of boat, a key part of evaluating risk, the JTS Study only surveyed registered boaters. Since non-powered boats are registered in only five states, most of the people interviewed were powerboat owners who also own a canoe, kayak, or inflatable. Naturally they spent most of their time in their powered craft, and relatively little time in a paddle boat. This made it appear that paddlesport fatalities resulted from a relatively small amount of user time.. this ignored use patterns of the vast majority of canoe, kayak, and raft paddlers who do not own powerboats and spend their entire boating time in unregistered non-powered craft. If the study was expanded to include the hours these boats are paddled by a typical user the results would be quite different. This could be done by contacting buyers through paddlesport manufacturers and dealers

But while the paddlesport death count has not moved beyond the range established in the early 80's, the sport has grown dramatically. The U.S. Forest Service, in their 1982-83 Nationwide Recreation Study, estimated that about 15 million people participated in canoeing and kayaking. In their 2000 National Survey on Recreation and the Environment they estimated that there were 19.7 million canoeists and 6.6 million kayakers nationwide. This is a growth of 75%, much of which occurred during the last decade. During this same period powerboat registrations have increased by only 35% and they have been pretty flat for the last 10 years. The fact that the accident rate is so low is a tribute to the efforts of many people, including the U.S. Coast Guard, state boating agencies, and a variety of nonprofit and volunteer organizations nationwide.

The death rate among paddlesports enthusiasts is often overestimated by the boating law community. Advocates for canoe and kayak registration in Connecticut, for example, claimed that registration would reduce the number of canoe and kayak fatalities. The Marine Trades Association weighed in, claiming that canoes and kayaks accounted for over half of all the state's boating deaths. ACA research found that in Connecticut there was an average of 1.5 canoe and kayak fatalities per year over the past six years. Out of a total of nine, alcohol, stolen canoes and drugs were the involved in four of these deaths. Low-head dams were involved in two, and strong current or whitewater in the other three.

Although American Whitewater shares the goal of improving the safety of recreational paddlers, we feel that these agencies have not yet made a good case for boat registration or mandatory education. We believe that wider education can be provided voluntarily, without creating an intrusive government program and unnecessary bureaucratic hurdles for participants. The challenges we face today remain the same as they were 20 years ago. The vast majority of fatalities would not have happened if the victims had worn life vests, and many others could be prevented if they avoided alcohol or drugs. Other deaths could be eliminated if paddlers who lack specialized equipment and advanced training stayed away from cold water, high water and extreme weather conditions. We feel that the current approaches used by government agencies and user groups have made good progress, and stand ready to help improve and refocus these efforts.

Another major argument used frequently by state boating agencies is that paddlers “are not paying their share”. To this we can respond than paddlers, like bicyclists, make few demands on the infrastructure. Unlike hunters or fishermen, they take nothing from the environment. Except when investigating fatal accidents and dealing with occasional hooligans, state boating agencies provide very useful few services to us. Although paddlers do make use of a few powerboat access areas, state boating agencies seldom help out with the vast majority of conservation and access issues we face. Sometimes they have actually hindered our efforts. Fish and Game commissions in several states have actively opposed recreational whitewater releases because of alleged (but unproven) environmental damage. They have also blocked access to several popular whitewater rivers that flow through their property, requiring that paddlers seek much less convenient launch areas. Until there is a concerted effort to build a partnership that improves whitewater paddling opportunities, American Whitewater will actively oppose boat registration wherever it is proposed.

Sample Letter

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.


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