A fisherman's got to know his limitations. And the same now apparently goes for every other boater on the St. Lawrence River who may accidentally drift into Canadian waters.
Roy M. Anderson, a seasonal resident of Thousand Island Park, found out May 30 that long-held notions of where it's OK for United States citizens to fish no longer apply. While fishing a favorite spot in the Gananoque Narrows with a friend, his boat was boarded and then "seized" by Canadian Border Services Agency officers.
"I was dumbfounded," Mr. Anderson, 22, Baldwinsville, said. "My dad's 67 years old and he's fished there his whole life without a problem."
According to Mr. Anderson, officers came aboard his boat and checked his $83 Canadian fishing license, which he always carries, and checked for outstanding criminal warrants, of which there were none. Trouble started when Mr. Anderson was asked if he had reported his presence in Canada at a port of entry, which he had not. At the time, he was less than a quarter-mile into Canadian waters.
"I was told, 'If you are in Canadian waters, you should be running toward a port of entry. If you're not running toward a port of entry, you are in violation of the law,'" he said.
Mr. Anderson, who fishes the narrows daily in the summer, said he had been checked previously by Ontario Provincial Police and Canadian game wardens and was always left with the impression that, as long as he was not anchored or otherwise on shore, he was doing nothing illegal.
This time, his boat was searched for contraband and seized and he was told that it would cost him $1,000 to get it back. If he could not immediately come up with the money, he would be placed in handcuffs and made to lie on his stomach while his boat was towed to shore in Canada, where he could face a fine of up to $25,000 under the Canadian Customs Act.
"I had to pay it on the spot," Mr. Anderson said. "They seized my boat and I had to buy it back on the spot."
The Canadian Customs Act states that penalties "shall become payable on the day the notice of assessment of the penalty is served on the person." It also gives border agents the authority to seize a boat "as forfeit."
Chris J. Kealey, a spokesman for the Canadian Border Services Agency, said if the penalty is not able to be paid on the water, "the alternative is they can seize the vessel pending payment of the penalty."
Mr. Anderson said that his boat is old and "not worth much," so "I was thinking about letting them just take it." After a phone call to his father, Michael, he agreed to pay the money using a credit card.
"Usually I don't have my wallet with me out there," he said. "Thank God I had a credit card with enough on it so I could get my boat back."
Sean R. Magers, a spokesman for Rep. William L. Owens, D-Plattsburgh, said the congressman has been made aware of Mr. Anderson's plight and has "reached out" to the Canadian Embassy on the matter.
Mr. Magers said the congressman's interpretation of the statute involved exempts fishermen, as it states that it does not apply to a person entering Canadian waters "directly from one place outside of Canada to another place outside of Canada."
David A. McCrea, a charter captain out of Henderson who fishes frequently in Canada, said "there's no rhyme nor reason" to be found in the enforcement of the Canadian fishing and boating regulations. He said calls to the border agency's Canadian Passenger Accelerated Service System, or CANPASS, which is designed to expedite the customs and immigration process, rarely provides a satisfactory answer as to what is and isn't allowed.
"You call that number five times and get five different answers," he said. "You just keep calling back until you get the answer you're looking for and then you get that guy's badge number."
Russell A. Finehout, a Clayton fishing guide, said he has had a Canadian fishing license for 55 years and it has always been a general rule among guides and other fishermen that if you had a license and weren't anchored, you could fish in Canadian waters without declaring your presence to customs.
"I've never been stopped by Canadian customs in all my years of fishing and I'm 74 years' old," he said.
Mr. Finehout said he recently visited the Canadian customs office at Landsdowne, Ontario, and was told that American fishermen are expected to report into the country at points in either Gananoque, Ivy Lea or Rockport.
"That makes it pretty much impossible for us to fish because of the time wasted going all the way over there to check in and then back to where you want to fish. That's a couple hours wasted, plus the extra expense for the gas."
Mr. Finehout said he was also told at the meeting that the rules apply not just to fishermen, but to all boaters, even people who unwittingly drift into Canadian waters without realizing they have crossed the international border.
"They don't want us to go over there. It's quite apparent to me," he said. "It'll be the last time I buy a Canadian fishing license."