User Conflict and Other Issues

A few months back I covered the subject of "user conflict" in our bays. Now for any not familiar with the term, it refers to the conflicts that arise all too frequently between groups that use the water differently (i.e. kayakers, airboaters, duck hunters, skiff fishermen, wade fishermen, etc.) Since that column, I have been part of many discussions relating to how we might reduce or eliminate these issues and it seems there is no simple solution. There are some selfish individuals who choose to ignore that a problem even exists and then there are extremists who see immediate regulatory changes as the only way forward. In my opinion, new regulation would be a big mistake. Worse yet, though, would be to stand by the status quo.

I recently attended a workshop/symposium that was titled, Challenges to Sharing and Conserving Our Bays. The gathering was organized by several organizations and invitations were sent to members of every conceivable user group. Those in attendance ranged from guides who pole skiffs or run airboats all the way to those who come from the north every winter to enjoy the great weather and bounty of the Texas coast. Also represented were waterfowl hunters and birders. The workshop's purpose, the way I understood it, was to identify problems we face along the coast, whether between users or habitat destruction by the users, and then to discuss ways to solve these problems. While it was clear the majority of the group agreed that problems exist, it was not clear how to deal with them.

As I mentioned in my forward, I see no solution in standing on status quo or pushing for regulation. So my purpose for the rest of this piece is not to so much rehash the workshop verbatim but, to identify some key issues that were discussed and offer my personal insight as to how to deal with them.


It is probably safe to say that much, if not most, user conflict and habitat destruction arises from poor etiquette exhibited by fishermen "burning" the flats in the name of "looking for" or "bumping" fish. Also to be included is the use of boats to herd or concentrate fish into tight schools for the purpose of making them easier to catch. Some people point the finger at certain types of boats but that is not a fair assessment. It is people (not boats) that are running around in the shallows tearing up habitat and disregarding fellow anglers who create the problems and I find their practices appalling. To be succinct- I find the practice of burning unsportsmanlike, unethical and unnecessary. I know some great anglers who catch more fish than most and they have never done more that idle to and from shorelines or maybe utilize their tunnel-hull to jump a sand bar only to come off plane in a gut or lake and then get out and wade. They do not have to run miles and miles of shoreline or run through the marsh to "find" fish nor do they have to run an airboat around the edge of a pond or lake to drive the fish into the middle to cast to them. It is not bad enough that these practices are irresponsible and at times dangerous; they also provide ammunition to those who believe the only way to stop it is to create "Low Impact Fishing Zones" (No Motor Zones).

I have had many days ruined by burners and airboaters intent on running for twenty minutes and then fishing for only five before cranking up again. In addition, I have nearly been run over by boat drivers standing on the console with their eyes focused on the water looking for fish rather than where they were going. In fact, a couple of incidents made me wonder, "If they damn near hit us (three men standing on an eighteen foot skiff); what would have happened if we had been in kayaks?" The point is, I witness it daily and would like nothing more than to see the practice of burning come to a screeching halt. However- I still believe creating zones that will limit the way we access areas is not the way to deal with the problem. In fact, the tools are already in place in the form of existing regulation to address most of the problems and if the powers-that-be would make an effort to educate and enforce these regulations, most problems would become less of an issue.

Under the Texas Administrative Code, Title 31, Part 2, Chapter 65, Subchapter A, Division 3, Rule 65.72 it states that is unlawful to use any vessel to harass fish. This law was originally written to read- "it is unlawful to use airboats or jet-driven vessels to harass or harry fish." But what constitutes harassing fish? Well it is complicated and can be interpreted in many ways. But to fully understand it, it is important to know the origin of the law. As it has been explained to me; the law was originally conceived because gill netters would use jet-drives and airboats on the flats to chase fish into their nets. A few years back, the law was rewritten to include any and all vessels because it was clear that guides and recreational anglers had taken up the practice of "bumping" fish and were also using boats to circle fish, essentially driving them together to then cast into the "herd."

Now based on all of my research and discussions with different game wardens and a friend who is a judge, I interpret the harassment of fish to be anything done to concentrate or move fish that deprives other anglers of the opportunity for equitable enjoyment of the resource.

The problem with this law is that very few know it exists and more, it is difficult to enforce because game wardens must prove intent. My argument is that TPWD should make it known that this law exists and they intend on enforcing it. As for difficulty inherent with enforcement, I say rewrite the law to remove the difficulty. Most people are good and honest and if you tell them that it is against the law to do something, most will obey. For those who refuse, well that is where a more readily enforceable law comes into play. This will help eliminate anglers running the shallows all day and should reduce user-conflict and reduce habitat destruction. With the education and enforcement of a law that already exists, we have mostly eliminated the need for any new regulation or the creation of zones, hence providing all a more peaceful and equal enjoyment of the resource.

Rules of the Road

Moving on, I want mention that there are many laws that govern our conduct and movement on the waterways. The problem is that, again, few know they exist. These rules are published as a Commandant Instruction (Commandant of the U.S. Coast Guard) and are commonly referred to as the Navigation Rules or NAVRULS. And to paraphrase Rule 1 in the NAVRULS book- these rules apply to ALL vessels upon the INLAND WATERS of the United States. They are also enforceable by both the U.S. Coast Guard and TPWD.

Before actually getting to specific rules, I want to touch on two misconceived notions the first being that a kayak has the "right of way" over a power-driven vessel because it is under oar and moves slower. Not the case. Secondly, I will make note that, despite the fact that the water is only inches deep at times, our flats and areas like the Lighthouse Lakes are in fact considered "navigable waters" and vessels operating there are subject to the NAVRULS. I will stand corrected if I am wrong in the above two statements however after having been tested over these rules numerous times while serving with the U.S. Coast Guard and having tested over them again to maintain my Merchant Mariners Document, I feel pretty confident in my interpretations. Having covered that, I will now delve into a few more very pertinent rules as they pertain to all of us.

As I go into these rules, please realize that the allotted space for all of this is short so I am going to condense and paraphrase the best I can and try to make you aware of what I consider the most applicable rules when operating in the waters most frequented by the readers of this publication (anglers). Also know, that there are other rules that apply and notwithstanding, I urge you to learn them.

Responsibility- due regard shall be had to all dangers of navigation and collision and to any special circumstances, including the limitations of the vessels involved which may make a departure from these Rules necessary to avoid immediate danger.

General Definitions-The word "vessel" includes every description of watercraft used or capable of being used as a means of transportation on the water. The word "underway" means any vessel not at anchor, or made fast to the shore or aground. Vessels shall be deemed to be in sight of one another only when one can be observed visually from the other.

Conduct of Vessels- Every vessel shall at all times maintain a proper look-out by sight and hearingas to make a full appraisal of the situation and of the risk of collision.

Safe Speed- Every vessel shall at all times proceed at a safe speed so that she can take proper and effective action to avoid collision and be stopped within a distance appropriate to the prevailing circumstances and conditions. Factors to be taken into account are; visibility, traffic density, the maneuverability of the vessel with special reference to stopping distance and turning ability in the prevailing conditions, the state of wind, sea, current and proximity of navigation hazards and the draft in relation to the available water depth.

Narrow Channels- A vessel proceeding along the course of a narrow channelshall keep as near to the outer limit of the channel which lies to her starboard sidea vessel nearing a bend or area of a narrow channel where other vessels may be obscured by and intervening obstruction, shall navigate with particular alertness and caution and shall sound the appropriate sound signalevery vessel shall, if the case admit, avoid anchoring in a narrow channel.

Overtaking- Any vessel overtaking any other shall keep out of the way of the vessel being overtakenwhen a vessel is in any doubt as to whether she is overtaking another, she shall assume that this is the case.

Head-on Situation- Unless otherwise agreed (through the exchange of signals or by radio) when two vessels are meeting on reciprocal or nearly reciprocal courses... each shall alter course to starboard so that each shall pass on the port side of the other.

In addition to the NAVRULS it is important to know a couple of other pieces of pertinent information. There are a couple of terms used by the Coast Guard and I believe too, by the TPWD, and they are Negligent Operation and Grossly Negligent Operation of a motor vessel. The term "negligent operation" refers to the act of operating a vessel in such a manner that people could be harmed or damage can be done to property. "Grossly negligent" means that such harm or damage was actually done. To put this into perspective, when I was a boarding officer way back when, if I witnessed the operation of a vessel in manner in which it was not designed, such as say someone standing on the console of a boat steering it with their feet, I would consider that negligent. If that operator lost control of the vessel while operating in such a manner and the boat ran aground or someone was thrown from it as a result, I would consider that grossly negligent. Equally negligent would be a "poorly" marked or unlit kayaker paddling carelessly in an area of restricted visibility where motor driven vessels are known to frequent. All of these are examples of violations of the law and an individual could be cited.

It is important to all that you are aware of these rules as you haphazardly zig and zag over flats and through the marshes or paddle your kayak into the path of another vessel that has the right of way. Should you be involved in any sort of accident and it comes under investigation, these rules will come into play and fault will be assigned. Like the old saying goes- ignorance of the law is no defense nor is "I was in a kayak and this bigger boat just ran into me."

Now the question might be asked- how does all of this apply to user conflict? Well my take is that, a great deal of conflict arises out of what many kayakers have argued as safety issues (many of which could be addressed by kayakers making their vessel more visible by utilizing a flag) and justification for new regulations. I again point out that rules are already in effect to guarantee safety on the water no matter where you. With a little education, common sense and courtesy, we eliminate the need for any kind of "zone" that will further govern how we access potential fishing waters.

With what I have covered above, I have not even begun to touch on every little issue in detail, and believe me there are a great many more we could discuss. In addition, I have only briefly mentioned etiquette. It is a subject that many do not want to breach because it implies that we should slow down and think about others before blasting through them. Really? I should care whether or not I disturb another person, especially someone that I do not even know? The answer is yes! However, it is also to be expected, that if you choose to utilize a kayak to access the fishing grounds, you will be traveling slower than a powerboat and usually be fishing closer to the dock. You will encounter more traffic and you should not frown at those who have the ability and choose to leave you behind.

So, I leave you all with this one final thought. I urge you to recognize that, the faster you go, the more noise you make and the more water you disturb. A lot of the issues surrounding etiquette would resolve themselves if we would all just slow down. I have preached this for years and will go to my grave doing so. If your enjoyment on the water is directly related to how fast and loud you can be, maybe you should quit fishing and get into racing cars where this attitude is acceptable and expected. Many of us choose to go fishing for the peace and quiet and do not like it when we are getting run over. At the same time, for those who chose to paddle, it is important for you to recognize that the method in which you choose to access the water limits you and, you will have to work harder to avoid high traffic areas. You do not have, nor should you expect to have any greater right than the next guy. And, in the case that there is no other option but to operate in close proximity to each other, at least make an effort or pretend to give a damn. You might be surprised at how many conflicts are avoided and how far it will go to prevent the need for "new regulation" to govern our movements.

I for one recognize that the day may come that we need to regulate and direct traffic on the bays for the sake of the resource and for the purpose of safety and I, personally, have everything to gain if and/or when these "Low Impact Fishing Zones" are put into place. However, I still believe that the implementation of such areas should not even be considered until we have exhausted every other effort to solve existing problems and I believe the first step is to start educating and enforcing the laws and regulations that already exist.

Be good, go slow. . . and stuff like that!