San Diego Bay Charter Vessel Regulations
Whale watching, sailing, sportfishing and other types of charter vessels are popular and great ways to enjoy San Diego Bay and to get out on the ocean. The Port of San Diego has updated its charter vessel regulations to help ensure San Diegans and visitors can enjoy their experience safely and are protected as consumers. The updated regulations also standardize the minimum requirements for charter operations and create a more even playing field for charter vessel businesses.
The Port’s charter vessel regulations are set forth in San Diego Unified Port District (UPD) Code Section 4.37 - Regulation of Charter Vessel Operations in San Diego Bay and District Tidelands. Click on the link below to read the full updated Port Code, which was approved by the Board of Port Commissioners on May 11, 2021.
San Diego Bay is for Everyone
The updated regulations are intended to benefit our boating community and its relationship with locals and visitors. The Port engaged in more than three years of extensive community and stakeholder outreach that helped the Board and staff better understand the nature and extent of charter vessel operations on the West Coast and in San Diego Bay.
If you're a marina manager or charter operator, or looking to be a charter operator, be sure to sign up to receive updates and news regarding charter vessel regulations on San Diego Bay.
What Are the New Regulations?
The new regulations mean:
- As of July 1, 2021:
- Charter operators in San Diego Bay have to meet certain minimum requirements, as applicable to the vessel type, such as having Coast Guard licensed captains, minimum insurance, and proper Coast Guard vessel documentation or registration; obtaining and retaining a Certificate of Inspection from the Coast Guard; and making available to the Port Coast Guard required manifest information.
- Charters are prohibited from using Port public facilities (boat launches, public docks, etc.).
- As of October 1, 2021 (extended from September 1), charters operating from Port tenant marinas and landings are required to visibly display a Charter Vessel Operation decal to be issued by Port tenant marinas and sportfishing landings (in compliance with their leases).
Violators may be charged with a misdemeanor, which could result in a fine of less than $1,000; an infraction that could result in fines from $100 to $500; and civil penalties may result in a fine as follows:
- $500 for first offense in 12 consecutive months
- $2,500 for second offense in 12 consecutive months
- $5,000 for each additional offense in 12 consecutive months.
The updated regulations:
- Standardize the minimum requirements for charter operations.
- Will help the Port and Harbor Police enforce these regulations and penalize those that do not follow them – this ultimately helps ensure San Diegans and visitors can enjoy their experience safely and are protected as consumers.
- Create a more even playing field for all charter vessel operators.
Full details are available in Port Code Section 4.37.
If you have questions that aren't addressed in the information above, the full Port Code Section 4.37, and/or the FAQs below, send an email with your questions to to firstname.lastname@example.org.
For Tenants: Charter Vessel Operation Decals
Please note: Charter Vessel Operation Decal requests will be accepted only from current District tenants such as marinas or sportfishing landings with an existing District lease. Decal requests submitted by any person or entity other than a District tenant will not be accepted.
Marina and Sportfishing Landing Tenants: Each marina or landing must be in compliance with their lease provisions regarding charter operations before requesting Charter Vessel Operation Decals. All District Marina leases require subleases for each charter business to operate, which must be consented to by the District. To obtain consent for charter subleases, Marina tenants may submit a sublease summary for each charter operator via this link:
Charter Vessel Operation Decals Request: To request Charter Vessel Operation Decals for 2022, please complete the online Decal Request Form via link below and list each operator and vessel requesting a decal. may attach additional pages as needed. Once we have verified lease compliance as applicable for each request, we will notify tenants when the requested decals are ready for pickup.
Tenant Issuance Report: Once the Decals have been received and issued to charter operators, tenant representatives must complete a “Tenant Issuance Report” for each vessel that receives a set of decals. This required step will validate the issuance of the decals in compliance with Port Code Section 4.37.
Frequently Asked Questions
I’m a charter vessel operator. What do I need to do?
- As of July 1, 2021, you:
- Cannot use Port public facilities for charter operations. This includes:
- The Shelter Island, National City, and Chula Vista boat launch ramps and docks
- Guest/Visitor’s Dock at the Harbor Police Sub Station at 1401 Shelter Island Drive
- Dinghy docks
- Must meet certain minimum requirements, as applicable to the vessel type, including:
- Having a Coast Guard licensed Captain aboard at all times (applies to operations carrying a Passenger for Hire, Small Passenger Vessel, and Uninspected Passenger Vessel)
- Purchasing and maintaining a commercial marine liability insurance policy covering bodily injury, personal injury, and property damage caused by the Charter Vessel Operator
- Must have proper charter vessel documentation and registration per applicable state and federal laws
- Must have a Certificate of Inspection from the U.S. Coast Guard
- Must have a drug testing program in compliance with federal and state law, including U.S. Coast Guard regulations
- Must obtain and maintain a business license/certificate from the city in which the business is primarily located
- Must ensure vessels are and remain seaworthy
- Must comply with U.S. Coast Guard requirements for keeping passenger and crew manifests – this information shall be made immediately available to Harbor Police/Port and the U.S. Coast Guard.
- Cannot use Port public facilities for charter operations. This includes:
- As of October 1 (extended from September 1), charter vessel operators:
- Charters operating from a Port tenant marina or landing must visibly display a valid Charter Vessel Operation Decal – this can be obtained prior to September 1st from the Port tenant marina or sportfishing landing from which you are operating and signifies that the marina or sportfishing landing has verified compliance with the Port’s charter vessel regulations.
I’m a marina manager/dockmaster. What do I need to do?
First, be sure to read Port Code Section 4.37. Then, call your Port Real Estate asset manager to review and understand your lease requirements regarding charter vessel operations. Your asset manager will then also make sure you have everything you need to process decal applications and to issue decals. If you don’t know who to contact, check here.
When will the changes take effect? / When do you expect enforcement to begin?
The amendments are effective July 1, 2021, and decals are required as of October 1, 2021 (extended from September 1). Harbor Police and Port staff are working to educate charter vessel operators about the amended regulations and requirements before issuing citations. Additionally, Port staff will work with the marinas and sportfishing landings to put the new processes in place. Updates and notices will also be posted on this page, and charter vessel operators, marina managers/dockmasters, and community members can sign up for email updates here.
What qualifies as a charter vessel?
“Charter Vessel” means a boat, vessel or any type of watercraft which is less than 100 gross tons and carrying 150 passengers or fewer and includes but is not limited to, fishing charter, Bareboat Charter, sailing charter, Six Pac Charter, Small Passenger Vessel charter, Uninspected Passenger Vessel, personal watercraft, jet ski, kayak, canoe or paddleboard that operates on San Diego Bay for the purpose of taking passengers on the water for business or pleasure.
Why can't charter vessel operations have the option to use public docks?
After further consideration and discussion with various stakeholders, and to address the issues that have been raised, the use of public docks or facilities for charter operations is prohibited at this time due to uncertain demand and potential Port cost.
In the case of the Shelter Island Boat Launch facility, the latest upgrade was funded in part by a grant from the California Department Parks and Recreation, Division of Boating and Waterways. The grant specifically states that the facility and parking lot shall be utilized as a launching facility solely for recreational small craft vessels with no passengers for hire. Commercial fishers, with no passengers for hire, may still use the Shelter Island Boat Launch Ramp.
To help address concerns about lack of space at the marinas and sportfishing landings, Port staff will work with the marina and sportfishing tenants to identify any potential opportunities for more charter operations that can be allowed within their leaseholds.
Port staff will review the data collected regarding demand for use of public docks and may reconsider the future use of public docks based on data collected.
Why did the Port amend UPD Code Section 4.37 – Regulation of Charter Vessel Operations?
The previous regulations were adopted in 2001 and only addressed six-person maximum-capacity sportfishing charter vessels, known as “Six Pac” charters, because they aren’t subject to annual Coast Guard inspection. The previous regulations also only allowed for charters to operate from a marina or sportfishing landing, and the marinas and landings are responsible for ensuring the charter operators follow all applicable laws, though provisions conflict with certain lease provisions, do not cover most charter operations, and in general have not been complied with or enforced over the years because there wasn’t really a system or process ever set up. The newly adopted ordinance corrects these inconsistencies and provide a process for tenants and law enforcement to follow.
Today, the charter vessel industry in San Diego Bay has grown and become more popular, so much so that some charter vessel operators are operating from some of the Port’s public facilities, which wasn’t expressly allowed nor restricted in the previous regulations (which made enforcement difficult), and they may, knowingly or unknowingly, not be following all applicable laws and regulations. The amended code will provide the applicable laws for enforcement.