Q: I am researching the services offered by commercial assistance towing companies (such as SeaTow or Vessel Assist), and I am a little confused about the interaction between these services and the U.S. Coast Guard. Under what circumstances will the Coast Guard respond to a call rather than deferring to a commercial service? And, does the U.S. Coast Guard ever charge a fee for responding to a distress call?
A: Coast Guard fees are established by federal statute. For the most part these fees are limited to documentation services, vessel inspection and mariner licensing. However, it does not charge a fee to render assistance to a vessel at sea. In fact, Congress enacted a statute in 1983 (46 U.S. Code sec. 2110) expressly prohibiting the Coast Guard from charging a fee for search and rescue services, so this is not something that is subject to a discretionary waiver.