By DAVID SMITH/ecoRI News contributor
PROVIDENCE — The Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management (DEM) is expected to soon finalize revisions to fishing regulations regarding groups of boaters using state access areas.
The rule has caused some concern among fishing clubs that sponsor tournaments, kayak and canoe paddlers, and various organizations that sponsor group outings. Some of those groups included the Rhode Island Rivers Council, the Wood-Pawcatuck Watershed Association and the Rhode Island Canoe & Kayak Association.
The rule currently requires that any organized 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 believed there was no distinction between organized paddles and several friends who decide on the spur of the moment to head out on Rhode Island waters. It seemed that group of friends would need DEM permission or be in violation.
A hearing was held March 30 at DEM headquarters on proposed changes to the 3-year-old rule. More than 20 people representing various organizations attended. After the meeting, Catherine Sparks, assistant director for natural resources, said DEM officials would meet to discuss suggestions regarding the wording of the changes suggested at the hearing and “we will probably make minor changes.”
“We will bring in law enforcement, because they have to enforce the regulations, and we would make a recommendation to the director,” Sparks said. “We will be expeditious and hopefully have them to the director by the end of the week.”
The proposed new rule would distinguish between weekend paddlers and organized paddle groups. It also would increase the number that would trigger a permit to 10 or more boats, rather than the current three. Permission would have to be sought two weeks prior to the event, rather than three.
According to proposed changes, “A Special Use Permit from the RIDEM Division of Fish and Wildlife is required for Organizational Group Activities.”
An organizational group is defined “as an organization which has an administrative purpose and functional structure and is comprised of participants who are members, guests or affiliates.”
The recent hearing was divided into two parts. The first part was a workshop where people were invited to speak about any topic. The hearing was limited to just comments regarding the proposed changes.
During the workshop part, Roland Gauvin, a board member of Blackstone River Watershed Council/Friends of the Blackstone, said he was concerned that if his group sponsored a cleanup he wouldn’t know how many people might show up.
“That’s great, we want to support that,” Sparks said of cleanups.
“But we don’t want to be in violation,” Gauvin replied.
“It sounds like there is some planning involved,” Sparks said. “We should keep the lines of communication open.”
“I understand,” Gauvin said. “I don’t want to be in conflict with a fishing tournament.”
“Our job, mission is to work with you,” Sparks said. “I would think that making that phone call would be possible. No one is going to get in trouble. If other people see people taking things out of the river and call us, the officer can call dispatch to see who is on the river.”
As is the case with many organizations with their own access to rivers and ponds, the DEM regulation would not pertain to them. The rules and need for a permit only come into play when groups use a state fishing access point.
Sally Hanson, of the Westerly Land Trust, said that if a calendar of events was sent out and a particular trip was canceled because of a permit conflict that would cause problems. She also noted that the registration form calls for information that she can’t provide prior to a paddling event, such as the number of boats, vehicles and people.
DEM deputy chief Christine Dudley told Hanson to “just tell” Alan Libby, the agency’s principal freshwater biologist who also is responsible for the scheduling and permitting of fishing/paddling outings. “Just put more than 10 so that you have a placeholder,” she said.
Jim Cole, a member of the Rhode Island Canoe & Kayak Association, said the permit doesn’t address all the state boating access areas that are being impacted on one particular trip. He noted that an outing could start on the Wood River at the Switch Road access, go through the Alton access area because of the needed portage, and then end at a state access in Bradford on the Pawcatuck River. The permit process now only involves one access point.
Cole and two other speakers also argued that perhaps the permit process should apply to other big groups that are not organizations so that they can be expected to act responsibly.
David Pray said an issue in the past has been that some fishing clubs will pull permits to block other clubs from fishing, and never show up.
DEM attorney Gary Powers said there have been cases where those applying for the permits didn’t represent any clubs, were fictitious or were from neighborhood associations.
A few fishing club members raised concerns about putting placards in vehicles at the access area because it could be an invitation for someone to break into vehicles if they know the occupants will be busy for the day.
“You can rob my car because I won’t be back until 3 p.m.,” said Ray Costa of Rhode Island B.A.S.S. Nation. “It’s like a license to rob.”
Paul Drumm III of Queen’s River Kayaks in Richmond said the regulations have an impact on businesses. The requirement for permits might preclude him from accommodating a group that calls on a Friday and wants to rent boats and take advantage of a sunny day on Saturday.
“Two weeks doesn’t work for me,” he said.
Drumm said that often he has buses drop off people and there is no impact on parking at access areas. The group might then take out at the Wyoming Dam. He said that instead of two weeks, one day prior to an event would be better.
Sparks said the purpose of the regulation is to help everyone by making sure that access areas are available to groups when they need them, and that there are no conflicts out on Rhode Island’s rivers and ponds.