Columbia River charter fishing boats have an outstanding safety record, particularly when one considers the thousands of paying customers carried onto the river and ocean each year.

Much like airliners, charter boats tend to be safe due both to regulation and liability. On the regulation side, they are inspected by the U.S. Coast Guard and are required to comply with training and safety equipment rules. And in terms of liability, their insurance companies make them operate safely, or else.

A great amount of enlightened self-interest also comes into play, as charter operations and the industry as a whole live and die by a reputation for returning clients back to the docks happy and healthy. Most operators have been here for years and are sincerely interested in safety.

But in a year when the national economy has somewhat curtailed corporate interest in booking fishing trips, charter operations are understandably even more aware than usual of anything smacking of bad publicity. They have been much upset with news of a fatal accident in Garibaldi this spring and a near-miss last month near Chinook. Although both these incidents involved smaller, less-regulated guide boats, charter operators fear being tarnished by any news involving fishing boats for hire.

The Ilwaco Charter Association, for one, has lobbied the Coast Guard and Washington and Oregon licensing offices for years to restrict the use of small guide boats in the comparatively dangerous waters west of Tongue Point. Public support for this has been lukewarm, some believing the charters merely want to further restrict competition. But there is in fact a good case to be made either for restricting use of guide boats in the estuary and ocean, or else significantly ratcheting up the standards they must adhere to in terms of equipment, inspections and training.

To some extent, most local people are knowledgeable enough to make informed decisions about what level of risk they are willing to accept in a boat for hire. But the majority of charter clients aren't from here. A few may deliberately seek a small guide boat in order to obtain more flexibility and to have a boat all to themselves. But many simply show up at the dock looking for a fun, safe trip at an affordable price.

Ultimately, it's up to the licensing agencies to make certain paying customers are equally safe no matter what boat they board, or at least are fully informed about the comparative risks associated with the different options.

A troubling aspect of last month's near fatalities when a Hammond-based guide boat spilled its passengers into the river near Chinook is that the clients had reason to believe they were booking a charter boat and got a guide boat instead. Whether this was a bait-and-switch or a genuine misunderstanding is a subject of controversy. But if local charter businesses want to be regarded as "the safe choice," they need to make sure clients get exactly what they expect and pay for.

It's wonderful that recreational fishing of all types has come back so strongly in the past two years, with all that means for the economy in Clatsop and Pacific counties. Charter fishing is a vital player in this happy circumstance. The industry itself, along with government, should set the stage now for the coming seasons that we all hope will be as good or better than this one.

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