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Canadian tour boats entering US waters lead to turbulence during Covid-19 border closure

David Kay, who operates Clayton Island Tours, says one of his tour boat's captains took this photo of a boat with Ontario-based tour company Rockport Boat Line while is was sailing in U.S. waters on Wednesday. (Submitted by David Kay). Sketched by the Pan Pacific Agency.

OTTAWA, Aug 14, 2020, CBC. U.S. tour boat operator David Kay is frustrated. He said he’s prohibited from entering Canadian waters in the St. Lawrence River, yet he continually sees Canadian tour boats travel along the same river into U.S. waters, CBC reported.

“We can’t go over there and they can come over here,” said Kay, owner of Clayton Island Tours in Clayton, N.Y. “It’s kind of an unfair advantage.”

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Canada and the U.S. have agreed to shut their shared land border to non-essential traffic, which includes recreational boating.

But some U.S. commercial tour boat operators in the St. Lawrence — who are now prohibited from entering Canadian waters — say their Canadian counterparts don’t face similar restrictions.

“I have no problem with Canadian boats coming into the U.S. waters,” said Ron Thomson, owner of Uncle Sam Boat Tours in Alexandria Bay, N.Y. But he said Canada should also let in U.S. tour boats — as long as no one docks and passengers don’t disembark.

“What [COVID-19] threat do my boats pose by coming into Canada and then going back to my docks?” he said.

U.S. Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York agrees. In a statement earlier this month, he said he sent a letter to the Canadian government asking it to relax it’s boating restrictions.

Schumer said many U.S. boaters have recently reported facing fines when crossing to the Canadian side of the St. Lawrence.

Americans caught entering Canadian waters for tourism face up to six months in jail and/or fines of up to $750,000.

Schumer said U.S. boaters sailing through Canadian waters pose no health risks and that the rules aren’t reciprocal, as U.S. authorities still allow Canadian vessels to pass through U.S. waters.

“That type of uneven enforcement puts U.S. boaters — especially tour companies — at a disadvantage and does nothing to protect Canadians from COVID-19 spread,” the Senate minority leader said.

However, U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) told CBC News that the rules are even because Canadian tour boats actually aren’t allowed to enter U.S. waters.

“Traversing U.S. waters for recreational purposes is deemed non-essential and therefore not authorized due to the current travel restrictions,” CBP spokesperson Mike Niezgoda said in an email.

Confusion over rules

But U.S. tour operators Kay and Thomson said they see two Ontario-based tour boat companies — Gananoque Boat Line and Rockport Boat Line — take Canadian passengers on tours multiple times a day along the U.S. side of the St. Lawrence River.

“People on [my] boat see the Canadian boat go by and say, ‘Well why can they come here if we can’t go there?'” Kay said. “We can’t really give an answer.”

Gananoque Boat Line — based in Gananoque, Ont., near Kingston — declined to comment and referred CBC News to Transport Canada.

Transport Canada responded in an email that it “respects the authority of U.S. officials regarding vessels entering their waters.”

Rockport Boat Line, based in Rockport, Ont., confirmed to CBC News that it’s still sailing to the U.S. side of the St. Lawrence and said that it has permission to do so.

Company president Kathleen Allen stated in an email that Rockport’s tour boat is considered a commercial vessel, not a recreational boat, and that U.S. CBP told her the vessel could travel — without stopping — in U.S. waters.

“We are not ‘crossing into the U.S.’ as in some kind of border crossing,” Allen said. ‘We are travelling nonstop through U.S. waters.”

When CBC News asked U.S. CBP about Allen’s statement, it reiterated its policy that tour boats cannot enter the U.S. at this time. The agency said it’s constantly on the lookout for trespassers and that boaters who break the rules could face fines or expulsion.

CBP said it couldn’t immediately provide information on how many Canadians have been fined for entering U.S. waters since the border closure began in March.

A compromise?

Back in Clayton, N.Y., tour operator Kay said he hopes his Canadian counterparts will continue to sail in U.S. waters.

“I’m not trying to shut them down. I’m trying to open it up for us.”

In Schumer’s letter to the Canadian government, he proposed that Canada grant U.S. boaters pre-clearance to enter Canadian waters, as long as they adhere to safety rules such as wearing masks and not docking.

“Such a system … would not increase the risk of COVID-19 spread to Canadians,” he wrote.

But, at least for now, Canada is sticking to its current travel restrictions for U.S. boaters.

“These are unprecedented times, and the measures imposed were done so in light of potential public health risks,” Canada Border Services Agency said in an email.

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