Kayak and canoe rentals in Tennessee will be regulated as state officials look to track water traffic amid growing concerns of access issues.
Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency will require commercial operators that lease or rent non-motorized vessels to receive a free state-issued permit to continue operations.
"We have no idea how many outfitters are in the state, and how much impact they're having," TWRA assistant director Chris Richardson said. "To set up minimum standards, we're now requiring a permit."
The permits will be free, for now, as the agency tries to get a better idea of where the majority of the traffic is going and get a general sense how much traffic is on the water. That will help TWRA determine where to dedicate its resources and whether certain areas are being over or under patrolled. Problems are seen statewide when operators rents kayaks and canoes to large groups, preventing fishing opportunities along certain stretches and clogging boat ramps, according to the Tennessee Wildlife Federation - which helps develop legislation for TWRA.
The bill's critics worry about future permit costs that could be implemented and additional government oversight while supporters argue it's needed as the state's population increases and there's a growing strain on water access.
"This gives us a chance to know what's going on on the water to resolve some of these conflicts," Tennessee Fish and Wildlife Commission commissioner Tony Sanders said. Sanders represents District 4, which includes Hamilton, Bledsoe, Bradley, Marion, McMinn, Meigs, Monroe, Polk, Rhea and Sequatchie counties.
The Tennessee Fish and Wildlife Commission, which oversees TWRA, approved the requirements on Jan. 18. It will now go before the Government Operations Committee of the Tennessee General Assembly.
It excludes commercial outfitters operating with a U.S. Forest Service permit in and near Cherokee National Forest. Those areas are already governed by federal agencies.
Rock/Creek, which rents kayaks throughout Hamilton County, has met with some local officials to gather information about the bill.
"I don't see an issue with their being a permit system in place on our shared water resources," company president Chad Wykle said. "We're not opposed to it; we understand that this is needed."
But it is a wait-and-see approach for Rock/Creek and other outfitters if a fee is added. Rock/Creek wants to continue offering water rentals to introduce people to paddle sports. They'll continue to do that, even if there is a fee, if it makes financial sense.
The commission also voted to increase fees for motorized boat registration for the first time in a decade and second time in more than 20 years.
Registration will increase between one-and-eight dollars, depending on the size of the craft. Smaller boats, with lower registration fees, will see the lowest increase.
The price increase is to keep pace with inflation to pay for salaries, equipment, gas, maintenance and other expenses.
"Costs have gone up, so we need to make sure the fund stays healthy," Sanders said.