There you are, enjoying the solitude of a peaceful, green pool beneath a gently flowing riffle in the river. Caddis flies hatch from the bottom, emerging from the water and the pool fills with rising trout awaiting a well-placed artificial fly. You recall a quote by Roderick Haig-Brown who said, “Rivers are veins of the earth through which the lifeblood returns to the heart.”
Then, in the distance, you hear a shout followed by laughter and a splash. You glance upstream and there they are – an armada of brightly-colored rafts captained by fun-loving college students enjoying the river in a very different way. Soon, rather than rising trout, the tranquil pool is filled instead with people leaping from their rubber perches sending splashes and shock waves across the stream. The hope of more rising trout vanishes with the waves created by cannonballing rafters.
Fishermen refer to it as “the rubber hatch,” and there are more and more rubber hatches occurring in Tennessee these days as more and more raft, tube, canoe, kayak and paddleboard rental businesses discover there is money to be made on the rivers. Just look out over the Tennessee River in downtown Chattanooga on any pretty weekend and you’ll see it even there. This week the Tennessee Wildlife Federation (TWF) has launched the “Share Our Rivers” Coalition, asking state legislators to stay the course in regulating commercial businesses that rent rafts, tubes, kayaks and paddleboards.
REGULATIONS ALREADY IN PROGRESS
The Tennessee State Legislature already granted the Tennessee Fish & Wildlife Commission the authority to write mandatory guidelines and assign fees for commercial operators on public waterways. The TFWC has established a task force, including representatives of commercial livery services, to craft those guidelines and fees.
The task force is finishing up its work and Chris Richardson, TWRA Asst. Director and Legislative Liaison, said he will be formally filing proposed guidelines to regulate commercial paddlecraft rental businesses by the end of this month, opening up an official public comment period before the TFWC is scheduled to vote on the matter in January.
However Mike Butler, the Executive Director of TWF, says many of the commercial operators are working hard to put a halt to that effort, reversing the legislation already in place.
“The commercial operators have put together a lobbying effort to try and undo what’s already been done,” said Butler. “They want the regulatory process to stop completely. That’s not a reasonable position in our opinion.”
Hence TWF has unveiled the “Share Our Rivers” coalition, encouraging people to contact their legislators and other officials to try and keep the existing process on track.
Richardson said, “TWF’s campaign is important but I don’t want that campaign to be imputed to the Agency. I’m not taking a side or advocating one way or the other. I’m just trying to be the umpire and call balls and strikes. The legislature assigned us the responsibility of regulating this so our goal as a wildlife agency is to create something that makes the experience on the water better for all users.”
OPINIONS OF OPERATORS
While he hasn’t heard specifically about the effort underway, Ray Gorrell with River Canyon Rental in Chattanooga is opposed to the new regulation and especially any associated fees. Gorrell said he stresses safety to his customers and has never experienced an accident in his five years in business.
“I think it’s a revenue-seeking device,” said Gorrell. “We already pay state taxes. Why should we be taxed twice?”
Charlie Eich, owner of River Drifters Chattanooga said he knows of the regulatory plan and in general he supports it.
“Yes I do,” said Eich. “I don’t think just anybody should be able to put someone on the water for a dollar. I think adequate safety measures do need to be in place. We provide specific pre-trip training telling people they can’t stop on private property. We’ll provide trash bags and instruct people on how to act safely and appropriately. That is why I support this, so that people who aren’t doing that will be required to.”
Eich added, however, that he is anxious to see what fees and specific regulations might come with the measure.
“I hope it’s something so we’re not over-regulated and make it cost-prohibitive,” he said.
Philip Grymes, Executive Director of Outdoor Chattanooga, said he too wants to see the details of the proposal and specifically learn more about any associated fees to be charged to businesses.
“In general we’re not opposed to it. I think [commercial operators] should maintain a level of professionalism,” said Grymes. “I just hope they’ve given it enough thought and have a good understanding of the industry. Not all of these are large commercial operations. A lot of them are small side businesses run by folks just trying to feed their families. I hope it’s scaled for the large operators and the smaller Mom & Pops.”
Richardson said they do want to scale costs based upon the size of the operation. However he declined to release any details until he has formally filed the proposal.
CHATTANOOGA AREA ISN’T THE PROBLEM
So far everyone acknowledges that commercial operations in the Chattanooga area are not a problem.
“In Chattanooga we’re very lucky because all of them are being run at a professional level,” said Grymes. “If we were putting a thousand people down North Chickamauga Creek we might be having the same issues here.”
Richardson said, “Most of the concern seems to be from Middle Tennessee rivers.”
Access points, especially on the Caney Fork and other Middle Tennessee streams have become choked with commercial services launching their clients. Social media is full of horror stories from anglers, some who say the unregulated commercial float services have ruined fishing opportunities on the Caney Fork, a prized trout stream.
There have been commercial rafting services in Southeast Tennessee for decades on the Hiwassee River and the Ocoee River. However, since those services are inside a federal national forest, and/or depend upon TVA to provide the water for their operation, they are already regulated and pay additional fees. Richardson said operators in the Ocoee River management zone have been specifically exempted from the new regulatory process.
PAY TO PLAY
Butler said, “It’s a good thing that people want to get out on the rivers we just need to do it the right way. There’s enough room for everyone to enjoy the river if everyone does it right. We’re not advocating putting people out of business. We just want to see safety standards. Fishermen are subsidizing all the enforcement on the rivers but they’re not causing the problems we’re seeing.”
Butler says public waterways are just that – public – meaning anyone can use them whether they hold a fishing rod, an outboard engine throttle or a paddle. He says the one major difference is that folks holding fishing rods and outboard engine throttles are paying to help protect the resource. Fishing licenses help protect the wildlife resource and enforcement of regulations. Taxes on outboards, marine fuel and boat registrations go to protect water quality.
Paddlers and rafters, however, do not have to register their vessels or put gas in them. They are not required to pay anything to help protect the resource they enjoy or in some cases, profit from. TWF is not suggesting additional fees or regulations for private, individual users – only for commercial services that are profiting from use of the public waterways.
“River access is one issue,” said Butler. “I was hearing horror stories five years ago about fishermen having to wait an hour-and-a-half to get their boat out of the water because commercial operators had taken over the launch ramp.”
Grymes said, “I [personally] pay-to-play by buying a hunting and fishing license every year and I feel good knowing that money goes back into the resource. I think that’s a great model.”
On its web page TWF policy makers write, “Without reasonable management that corrects bad actors and give guidelines to good ones, problems will get worse until the resources are no longer desirable to private users or the customers of these commercial operators. And the fish and wildlife that depend on our rivers will be left with low-quality habitat. These losses will take decades to recover and will destroy the economic opportunities that our rivers currently provide.”
Gorrell said, however, “I don’t know why we need any regulation. We’ve been in business five years and never lost anybody or had a bad accident. I don’t think anything needs to be permitted.”
To share your opinions you can visit TWF’s “Share our Rivers” webpage.