Coast Guard rules make licensing, exam harder for area fishing guides

David Parks Jr. gives some casting tips to his client Sarah Pearl in the Kulik River at the Bristol Bay Guide Academy, June 2015. (Photo by Matt Martin/KDLG)
David Parks Jr. gives some casting tips to his client Sarah Pearl in the Kulik River at the Bristol Bay Guide Academy, June 2015. (Photo by Matt Martin/KDLG)

An upcoming course at the Southwest Alaska Vocational and Education Center will help prospective fishing guides get ready for a Coast Guard exam required to get a “six-pack” operator’s license.

But area lodge owners say recent rule changes by the U.S. Coast Guard have made it the process of getting that license more difficult.

Nanci Morris Lyon owns the Alaska Sportsman’s Bear Trail Lodge, and she teaches the Bristol Bay Guide Academy, a weeklong summer course that trains young people from the region to be fly-fishing guides.

About 15 of Lyon’s students have gone on to become licensed guides, which until last year meant they had to log 180 eight-hour days on freshwater before taking a test to get their Coast Guard license.

But recently, Lyon says, the Coast Guard has doubled that sea-time requirement and now requires guides to log time on each body of water where they’ll be running boats.

“Which is really the worst of both worlds for the Academy students, because it’s going to take them a long time to receive that certification.”

The certification the Coast Guard now wants Western Alaska guides to have is called the Restricted Operator Uninspected Passenger Vessel (ROUPV) license, commonly known as the “six-pack” or six-passenger license.

And Lyon says restricting the 360-day requirement to certain waterways will make it very difficult for her lodge to hire guides who have that six-pack license.

“In any given year, I keep boats on American Creek, Alagnak River, Naknek River, Nushagak River, I’ve had them down on Egegik, I use boats on the Kvichak, and down on Ugashik. So start adding those up – it’s gonna take a lot of years to have a fully qualified guide.”

In addition to the time and location requirements, the new rules also come with a more complicated test.

Lyon says the exam now asks students to demonstrate advanced math and navigation skills that they won’t actually need as a guide in Bristol Bay.

“It’s obviously a severe deterrent for my class. I’m targeting youth who are more interested in hands-on life skill than they are college training. And it’s the same way with our guides. Now, our guides who had a passion for the outdoors, who weren’t maybe the kids that were modeled for a college career, had an opportunity to enter into worthwhile and lucrative business that would allow them to have a future in something they truly loved… And I think the industry will hurt greatly.”

Lyon plans to travel to D.C. this spring to talk to Alaska Senators Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan about getting the Coast Guard to create more realistic rules for Western Alaska.

The upcoming SAVEC class is February 23-24. Lyon says it will be very valuable in helping guides get prepared for the Coast Guard test, but only for those who have already logged most of their sea-time.

The course is fully funded for watershed residents. For registration information call 246-4600, or email annette@savec.org.