Might mandatory boat registration be coming to Pennsylvania?
Some folks have enjoyed a free ride. It's been a watery one, for sure, but a free one nonetheless.
That might change.
Paddlers across Pennsylvania — of kayaks, canoes and stand-up paddleboards — will have to pay to register their boats in future years if Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission officials get their way.
It's a matter of fairness and, they say, ultimately, money.
The commission is tasked with, among other things, promoting and managing boating across the commonwealth. That involves maintaining launches, developing water trails, investigating accidents, doing water rescues and more.
It does all that, said deputy executive director Brian Barner, using money from boaters. Or, more specifically, some boaters.
Owners of motorboats are required by law to register their boats. That costs $26, $39 or $52 every two years, based on the length of the boat.
The commission also gets $3 from the U.S. Coast Guard for every boat registered.
Registrations are down, though, and have been trending that way for a while. The commission registered 338,058 boats in 2008. That number dropped every year but one since and likely will hit its lowest mark in a decade this year.
As of Oct. 18, the commission registered just 304,888, said Bernie Matscavage, director of the agency's bureau of administration.
Demands for boating facilities and boating support remains high, though, Barner said. That's because the popularity of kayaks, canoes and stand-up paddleboards continues to grow.
But there's nothing in the law that says those boats to be registered. And many aren't.
Paddlers who want to use a commission- or state-park-owned launch must buy a launch permit. As of Jan. 1, they cost $12 for one year or $22 for two.
Sales of those permits continue to climb.
In 2004, the commission sold 5,862. Sales trended up every year thereafter, and in 2017 hit 108,439. That was the first year they topped the six-figure mark.
This will be another.
As of Oct. 10, the commission had already sold 116,437, Matscavage said.
The problem, Barner said, is there are an estimated 300,000 kayaks, canoes and paddleboards out there. So nearly two out of every three of those boaters are contributing nothing, he noted.
They're benefiting from the commission's work for boaters, he noted.
"They just don't pay for it," Barner said.
The commission can't change that on its own. Only state lawmakers have the authority to require all boats of all kinds be registered.
But commission officials will ask them to make that change. John Arway, executive director of the commission, said that is a priority for the commission in the next legislative session, which begins in January.
"We hope to tee this up the first of the year," Arway said.
That would bring two benefits, Barner said.
One is financial. Requiring all boats to be registered would, even after accounting for lost permit sales and other factors, lead to a net profit for the commission of more than $902,000 annually, he said.
That's huge considering what else is going on, he said.
Fishing license sales, like boat registrations, are both down nearly 4 percent this year. That's after declines of about 4 percent last year, too.
The commissions lost $1.5 million in revenue as a result.
"That significantly does impact our budget," Barner said.
The money from mandatory boat registrations would help make up that shortfall, he noted.
The other is related to safety.
The only Pennsylvania boaters required to undergo safety training before hitting the water are those planning to operate motorboats of more than 25 horsepower or personal watercraft.
All those who register a boat get at least a copy of the commission's boating safety handbook, though.
Paddlers don't even get that. Coincidentally or not, they're the ones dying most often in boating accidents.
Last year, for example, 11 of the 17 boating fatalities seen statewide involved unpowered craft. That's been the trend for a while, said Corey Britcher, chief of the commission's law enforcement bureau.
"Small, unpowered boats, that's where people are dying," he said.
State lawmakers will elect leaders in the House of Representatives and Senate on Nov. 13 and 14, a week after the fall elections, said Mike Nerozzi, director of policy and planning for the commission. Committee assignments are coming in mid-December.
The commission will start looking for a "champion" for its cause after that time, he added.