Passengers on a charter boat watch whales in the Pacific Ocean
Stagnaro Charter Boats are able to bring up to 70 passengers out on the 60-foot Velocity for whale watching excursions.
(Deana Glenz for Stagnaro Charter Boats)

Sportfishing, whale watching charters endangered? Proposed new pollution standards focus on excursion boats

A proposal to require sportfishing and whale watching boats to use Tier 3 and 4 motors — the cleanest available — is causing concern among Santa Cruz captains, who say the replacement costs could put them out of business.

As California’s air pollution regulators aim to lower pollution statewide, two ocean-specific industries — sportfishing and whale-watching — could be targeted further, something local business owners say “would be catastrophic.”

Last Friday, the California Air Resources Board met in Sacramento to consider a measure that would require sportfishing, whale-watching and other excursion boat owners to install the newest and cleanest diesel engines. The board has not made a final decision, and is scheduled to resume discussion on the issue this coming spring.

According to the agency, the boats create as much pollution as 162 school buses. It states the new rules could avoid 531 premature deaths, 161 hospital admissions and 236 hospital visits during the next decade.

The back end of a charter boat in the Pacific Ocean
The Stagnaros Legacy charter is one of two the company operates for sports fishing and whale watching excursions — but co-owner Ken Stagnaro says the boat would be obsolete should a new measure go into effect by the California Air Resources Board.
(Courtesy of Stagnaro Charter Boats)

“Harbor craft are one of the top three contributors to emissions that raise cancer risks around port and marine facilities,” said Bonnie Soriano, chief of the Freight Activity Branch at the California Air Resources Board. “This [regulation] reduces the risk of cancer from emissions for almost 15 million residents.”

But for locals like Ken Stagnaro — the fourth-generation owner of Stagnaro Charter Boats in Santa Cruz — the proposal would be devastating.

“Our major assets in our business are our vessels...for me, each boat would be between $1.5 to $2 million to replace,” he said. “A lot of people will just go out of business — if it came down to it, potentially I would too.”

Stagnaro — who operates a 60-foot yacht and a 56-foot yacht from Santa Cruz Harbor — said his motors are in accordance with current state regulations. But the proposed rules would require the use of Tier 3 or 4 motors, which trap carbon and have a particulate collector.

For his type of boats, the new motors aren’t an option. And he claims the technology — currently used almost solely in heavy-duty trucks and farming equipment — can be dangerous on the open water.

“They are taking a big risk, both in terms of safety and financially, for something that’s not even proven on the ocean yet,” he said. “No one feels like it’s feasible to even get these in a boat...there has to be better research on this before we basically trash our boats and make them useless.”

Christina Glynn, a spokesperson for Visit Santa Cruz County, said the organization doesn’t track how many visitors come for specific activities. But, she said, it’s likely a large percentage of the 3 million annual visitors are coming to see aquatic wildlife.

I don’t see how they can just spring this on us like this...I don’t think we could survive.

“Whale watching is a very popular activity and critical for us to promote during the shoulder season from Labor Day to Memorial Day,” she said.

Given Santa Cruz’s proximity to the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary, Glynn said the area’s popularity is tied to that accessibility.

Captain Rodney Armstrong opened Santa Cruz Coastal Charters in 2016 and just replaced his old gas-powered boat to spend his life savings on a new 35-foot charter.

“It would be catastrophic — I wouldn’t be able to [replace the engine] without getting a loan or anything,” he said of the proposal. “I don’t see how they can just spring this on us like this...I don’t think we could survive.”

At the start of the pandemic, Armstrong estimated he lost at least $60,000 from COVID-19 restrictions in April and May 2020. He said replacing his current engine to comply with the regulations would cost at least $100,000.

In Santa Cruz County alone, Stagnaro estimates that 500,000 tourists come to the area each year for sportfishing and whale watching; without the charters, that could lead to a major hit to California’s tourism dollars.

“We’re the main public access to the Pacific Ocean here, we have substantial assets in the Monterey Bay for whale watching,” he said. “How do you get on the ocean without us?”

It could cause a domino effect, said Stagnaro.

“If people can’t go out on the boats, it would cut into travel, shoreside activities, and restaurants,” he said. “It’s a huge consequence to knock all of these businesses that have gone through generations of families out of the game.”