DESTIN, Fla. (WKRG) — A consumer warning for those hoping to enjoy Crab Island by charter boat, make sure the vessel is legal. Illegal Charter sightings are rising for the 2022 season.

“They’re picking up charters on the weekend,” said Captain Madison Sullivan. “They think, oh, I have a boat. I’m going to make a couple of extra dollars and they’re taking people out there. They’re drinking with their parties. They’re making a really bad reputation for the, for the captains and the charters, who are out here legally, and do this every single day.”

Captain Madison Sullivan, owner and operator of Crab Island Adventures recently posted to TikTok showing the customers’ side of hiring an illegal charter.

A bachelorette trip was cut short over the weekend when their vessel was being operated without a Crab Island or Coast Guard inspection permit. The group returned to shore at the Destin Marina by law enforcement.

“I noticed the sheriff dropping off a big group of girls,” said Captain Maidson. “I walked up and I asked the girls ‘Hey, what happened?’ They said ‘our captain was stopped because they didn’t have a permit for Crab Island. And we were told that we couldn’t go to Crab Island, and so we asked him for our money back.’ They said it got ugly and he refused to give their money back so they called the cops back over, asked them to give them a ride to shore because it was getting very dicey.”

The National Park Service and Okaloosa County require permits to conduct business on Crab Island. The sand bar is considered a national park. These permits are currently only required for captain-run charters that operate to and from Crab Island. Fishing and snorkel charters are exempt.

The permit laws say any commercial boat being operated by a licensed charter captain for profit can have no more than six people. This includes the restaurant and ice cream boats that go to and from Crab Island.

This is different than a rented pontoon boat from the area, also referred to as a bareboat operated by a licensed boat driver. Bareboats must have lifejackets for everyone aboard and a sober driver.

The illegal charters are also different than going out to the sand bar on a friend or family boat for the day.

Capt. Fulghum said breaking these rules can land you with a second-degree misdemeanor and fines.

“There was some confusion in the beginning as to whether the charter captains needed it or not,” said Capt. Fulghum. “Recently we got an opinion from the County Attorney that they did need to have it, so we’ve been going through giving warnings and then going back in and issuing citations to anyone who we call it that was in violation of it. It is a $500 citation.”

Destin boat owners and the Okaloosa County Sheriff’s Office said a reason illegal charters are growing is a lack of enforcement.

“Our primary concern is still safety over anything else,” said Capt. Fulghum. “So you know we’re looking for the distressed swimmers first. We’re looking for the people who are boating under the influence. People who don’t know how to operate the vessel and then you know if we have time, that’s when we look for the illegal charters.”

Capt. Fulghum said OCSO assists the county code enforcement to patrol the area. The code enforcement department does not have the manpower or vessels to conduct the patrol themselves.

Permits and monthly fees add up to $10,000 to $20,000 a year for legal charters running to and from Crab Island. Business owners said the illegal charters are cheating the system to take advantage of tourists and earn extra money.

“I get calls almost every single day for my company that say, ‘we rented a boat on GetMyBoat two months ago and we just found out that our captain was arrested or they had to cancel all their cruises because they were caught doing it illegally. Our cruise is in two days, can you help me get out there?’ and nine times out of 10 we don’t have availability for them to get out there that weekend so I do not recommend using those sites,” said Captain Madison.

Captain Madison and more business owners have attended Destin city council and Okaloosa Board of County Commissioners meetings to bring up the problem.

The city and county are looking at enforcement options as the busy season begins for Okaloosa County tourism. Captain Madison said she has seen illegal charters run out of Joe’s Bayou in Destin and businesses on the harbor.

Capt. Fulghum said parks around the county have also been known for illegal charter runs.

Tips to spot an illegal charter:

  • Illegal charters do not have a brick-and-mortar store to pick and drop off customers.
  • The rental could be hundreds of dollars cheaper than legal charter boats.
  • Can be found on websites like GetMyBoat and on social media.
  • Will not have crab island permit stickers in front of the driver’s seat.