Lake Erie’s prominence as a great place set sail and catch fish is being seen as a chief mitigating factor leading to a boating season more deadly than in any of at least the past five years.
Yet almost lost in the equation is how some marine law enforcement officials see how a five-year-old law has hogtied a desire to crack down on unsafe and illegal boating practices.
To date, Ohio has recorded eight Lake Erie-associated boating-related fatalities. That number compares to six for all of 2017. In fact, the number of such similar fatalities generally have been ramping up: in 2013 the total figure for Lake Erie-associated boating-related fatalities was three – a number that fell to two in 2014. However, that deadly tally climbed back to three in 2015 and again rose in 2016 – this time to four.
It is this growth in boating-related fatalities that most alarms local, state and federal waterways safety official, even as the boating season is starting to wind down. As late as August 25th, a boating-related drowning occurred off the Mentor Lagoons in Lake County. As of this writing the victim’s body has not yet been recovered.
Brett Trump - a lieutenant with the Ohio Department of Natural Resources’ Division of Parks and Watercraft with responsibilities for the Island area – believes that increased boating activity is naturally helping to drive a rise in the number of boating-related fatalities and accidents, called “incidents” in official speak.
And this growth in boating activity has some signature in the sprouting of more anglers chasing down an abundant population of fish, Trump says.
“I think it’s that and also because we’ve had a lot of good weather, including an awful lot of hot days, that have resulted in more people boating,” Trump says. “That certainly has been a factor.”
So, too, Trump says, is that this year (and perhaps also because of the hot weather) more boaters seem to be jumping off their boats and into the water in order to cool off.
“They’re not wearing life jackets or else they’re not anchoring their boats, which are drifting off off,” he said.
As well, Watercraft officers are seeing more “no wake” violations, which potentially puts other recreational water users at risk, says Trump.
Not being seeing as much anymore, however, are vessels striking breakwaters or boats running into each other. Each of these types of incidents have proven deadly in the past, says Trump.
“We have seen, though, some unusual fatalities the past couple of years like the couple that was overcome by carbon monoxide and the young man that was electrocuted dockside,” Trump said.
Yet at least one community-based law enforcement agency with a Lake Erie marine presence suggests there exists another underlying contributor to boating incidents and even fatalities. That altruist being a state law that now prohibits marine-associated law enforcement officers from conducting random stops and boat checks on the water without probable cause.
This law – known as the “Boater Freedom Act” - was signed by Ohio Governor John Kasich in 2013.
“I would definitely say there’s a correlation there, and if we could make stops and on-water boat checks without first needing probable cause it would absolutely be helpful,” said Frank Leonbruno, chief deputy for the Lake County Sheriff’s Department.
Leonbruno is in charge of the Department’s 12-person seasonal marine patrol program which operates out of the Grand River.
While a more legally active law enforcement role would be useful in helping to put a check on boating-related fatalities, Leonbruno – himself a Lake Erie angler – said the seemingly increased number of walleye fishers does not appear to be a factor in driving up boating-related incidents. At least off Lake County where yellow perch fishing is more of a boating activity engine, says Leonbruno.
“We are just now seeing more perch fishermen around ‘the Hump,’” said Leonbruno, identifying the go-to perch-fishing destination off the Grand River.
It is perhaps telling as well that boaters elsewhere across the Great Lakes likewise have been demonstrating less than stellar boating behavior this summer, a Coast Guard official says.
“It’s interesting because at the start of the boating season our activity was fairly normal; maybe even a little below average,” said Mike Baron.
Baron is the civilian Recreational Boating Safety Specialist for the Cleveland-based Coast Guard Ninth District, which is responsible for 47 stations on all five of the Great Lakes.
“But recently there’s been an uptick on all the Great Lakes but especially on Lake Erie,” Baron said. “Maybe it’s a matter that as the boating season is winding down people are trying to get in as much time on the water as they can.”
Baron said the Great Lakes are something of a unique boating venue, too. Of the 12 million registered pleasure boats across the country, fully one-third of them call the Great Lakes their home port.
That means even though the Coast Guard’s Seventh District – largely comprised of Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, and Puerto Rico – have an equal number of registered pleasure boats its boating season is a 12-month affair. Not so the Great Lakes where boaters storm the waters fast and furiously for only a few months and not always safely, says Baron.
Baron said too that the Coast Guard’s Ninth District is seeing an increasing number of paddle sport vessel incidents along with those pleasure boats under 26 feet. Both classes represent growing market shares which has translated into increased boating activity that has resulted in keeping the Coast Guard’s assets around the Great Lakes at peak demand.
“There’s an awful lot going on here,” he said.
- By Jeffrey L. Frischkorn