TAMPA — The Coast Guard has gone on the offensive against what it says is a rising tide of illegal charter boat activity along the Suncoast.

During the weeklong enforcement effort, dubbed Operation PAX Defender, the Sector St. Petersburg Coast Guard crews, along with members of the Coast Guard Investigative Services, boarded and inspected 13 vessels and interdicted one illegal charter operation, according to a release Sept. 5 from Coast Guard Public Affairs Detachment Tampa Bay.

As part of Operation Pax Defender, the Coast Guard investigating officers responded to six reports of possible illegal charter operations. They found an uninspected passenger vehicle that was operating near St. Pete Beach without a properly credentialed captain.

The company that owns the uninspected vehicle was under investigation, according to the Coast Guard, which said it plans to issue a civil penalty to the company.

“The Coast Guard's main mission is to ensure safety and security on the water; boating passengers should understand the safety requirements before paying for boating services, said Cmdr. Anthony Migliorini, chief of prevention at Coast Guard Sector St. Petersburg. “I can't stress enough the importance of asking the captain to verify his or her license and researching the charter company that you are going to book.”

Migliorini urged anyone who suspects suspicious boating chartering activity to contact the Coast Guard. A charter boat operator asking would-be customers to mislead the Coast Guard should be a “red flag,” he said, adding lying to the Coast Guard is a federal offense.

Operation PAX Defender started as a response to increased illegal charter activity in Coast Guard 7th District's area of responsibility, the Coast Guard said. Headquartered in Miami, Coast Guard District 7 area of responsibility includes the Atlantic coast of Florida, Georgia and South Carolina and the Gulf coast of Florida from the Keys to Panama City.

The fact that Coast Guard crews didn’t find more illegal charter operations during Pax Defender was encouraging, Migliorini said. “My hope is that the reason we didn't find many illegal charters during this operation is due to our tireless efforts to educate potential passengers and to deter would-be illegal operators,” he said.

The crew conducting PAX Defender spoke with several charter captains who said they were concerned about illegal operators.

“Illegal charter operations affects the livelihood over the guys who go through the right process, take the schooling, pass the exams, maintain all the credentials, so we can be on these guy's [Coast Guard] team doing the right thing and making money the right and honest way,” said Shawn McCole, licensed charter captain quoted in the Coast Guard release. McCole operates Cast to Conserve, a fly fishing charter service that operates out of St. Petersburg.