TFWC takes first step in regulating paddlecraft rentals

The Tennessee Fish & Wildlife Commission - the regulatory body over hunting,fishing and boating regulations in the state - passed rules Friday that place substantial new requirements on Tennessee businesses that rent rafts, canoes, kayaks, paddleboards or any other form of paddlecraft. (Photo: Richard Simms)

The Tennessee Fish & Wildlife Commission passed the first version of a formal rule regulating paddlecraft rental businesses in Tennessee at it's meeting in Memphis on Friday. The rules that were passed, however, were substantially amended from the version made public last November, including the removal of any associated fees to be charged those businesses.

Businesses will still be required to apply to the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency for a "General Permit" to operate, providing a list of required items (below) on their applications. TWRA Asst. Director Chris Richardson said those permit applications would be expected to be submitted between Oct. 1 and Dec. 15 each year.

Commissioners made it clear Friday's action is just the first step of an ongoing process with potential changes, including fees, to come in the future.

It was generally agreed that the first year of the new requirements on rental businesses were primarily to gather relevant data that would provide better information for future revisions, including potential fees. Commissioner Jamie Woodson said that the initial proposed fees had been arrived at arbitrarily and that gathering more detailed data would provide a better basis for assessing fees on the rental businesses.

Friday's action came after the state legislature mandated that TWRA regulate paddlecraft rental businesses, in response - at least in part - to substantial complaints from fishermen about overcrowding on several popular streams and rivers.

Commissioner Bill Cox from West Tennessee said, "We're not doing anything for our customers, the fishermen. It's a little unnerving to me."

Commissioner Tony Sanders from Chattanooga agreed, saying, "Like Commissioner Cox I am disappointed we went through this dance for all this time and gained nothing."

The new rule does place a substantial burden on businesses to insure safety, including a mandatory briefing for their customers. Businesses must also provide TWRA proof of insurance and reports regarding the number of rentals they provide annually and the public access points they utilize.

The rule passed included an exemption for outfitters operating on the Ocoee River and on "state government entities" such as state parks, universities or other state-owned institutions. It does not exempt municipally-owned entities such as Outdoor Chattanooga.

TWRA Asst. Director Chris Richardson said the final rule passed Friday by the TFWC would not be publicly available until at least Monday. Below is a complete video of Friday's proposal and the ensuing discussion by commissioners and members of the public who attended. The paddlecraft presentation begins one hour and 28 minutes into the video.

Five of the commissioners who voted today will be rotating off of the TFWC following the February meeting, including Chairman Jeff Cook.

"This is the most common complaint I've had during my four years on the commission," said Cook. "This is the first bite at the apple. We will be coming back with more."

Commissioner James Stroud, who will remain on the TFWC until 2021 said, "Outfitters need to understand that there may be changes and it'll come sooner than later. But it's our responsibility as a commission to fix this and we're going to."

Numerous people representing paddlers and paddlecraft rental businesses attended the meeting and made comments to commissioners.

John Mattox, owner of Paddledog Adventures pointed out that in addition to owning a paddlecraft rental business, he is also a fisherman.

"I'm a little conflicted because the part of me that wants to be fishing agrees with the concerns of your constituents," he said. "But as a livery operator I'm not seeing the problems you're describing. But this [action] is impacting my business."

Mattox asked commissioners to consider four questions as they move forward in regulating businesses. He asked:

-- Are you gathering right data to define your problems?

-- Are fly fishing guides keeping similar records? (He believes they should.)

-- What about the non-commercial users? (How much impact are they having on the resource?)

-- When outfitters begin paying for public access of a public resource, we become a new group of your stakeholders. Are you prepared to address our needs as well?

Nathan Ridley, an attorney representing a commercial paddlecraft association, said, "I see this as a process, not an event. This isn't the end of it. We're just getting warmed up."

Ridley raised issues about adequate parking at many launch ramps. He asked commissioners to consider issuing permits for a longer time frame (rather than one year at a time). He expressed concerns that the requirement to provide detailed reports would make confidential business information public, suggesting that businesses be able to provide such reports under seal or possibly report "ranges" of customer numbers rather than the precise number of rentals.

Mike Butler, the Executive Director of the Tennessee Wildlife Federation closed out the public discussion saying, "If [any user] is going to use public resources, you should pay for the privilege to use those resources. That has to be a fundamental principal of any solution that is going to work long-term."

OTHER TFWC ACTION

-- As anticipated, the commission approved an increase in boat registration fees in Tennessee.

-- The commission heard an update on the status of chronic wasting disease (CWD). Chuck Yoest, CWD coordinator for TWRA told commissioners the agency has sampled more than 4,800 deer this season in Tennessee. To date, 62 samples from Hardeman and Fayette counties have been confirmed CWD positive and that the agency anticipates more positive CWD results from these areas.

-- Jamie Feddersen, TWRA migratory gamebird program leader, gave a preview of the 2019-20 season. Anticipated federal rules will now allow states to have Jan. 31 as the last day of duck season. Fedderson said hunter input indicates the desire to end the duck season Jan. 31. The agency recommended next year's statewide duck season be Nov. 29 - Dec. 2 and Dec. 7 - Jan. 31.

-- The commission also established a permanent Tennessee’s Native Son license. When initially created, the Native Son license had an expiration date of Feb. 28, 2019. The Native Son license allows individuals who were born in Tennessee, but now live out-of-state, to buy hunting and fishing licenses at the same cost as a resident. More information here.

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