Skip Links

BoatUS Concerned About Potential AIS Tracking Of Recreational Boaters

This now-vital tool in marine safety and national security could someday be used to track recreational vessel location and speed. Is that OK?

Aerial view of a white powerboat cruising horizontally through the water with a red marker over it

Photo: Getty Images/dkart; Marker: Getty Images/Ksenia Omelchenko

While today's technology from GPS to AIS to cellular communication makes this the safest time to be a recreational boater, all that pinpoint tracking does mean that we give up some personal information in order to be safer. Take AIS, for example, which stands for Automatic Identification System. International maritime law requires large commercial ships and vessels engaged in commercial activity to be equipped with AIS transponders that automatically provide position, identification, and other information to other ships and coastal authorities. When it comes to identifying nearby ships to avoid collisions, assisting in search-and-rescue operations, and simplifying information exchange, AIS has been a boon in maritime safety development akin to radar.

One concern in having authorities (potentially) knowing your location anywhere on the planet is that those authorities could also see when boaters equipped with AIS are speeding in designated zones meant to be crossed at lower speeds, or anchored in protected restricted areas, and use AIS as a primary way of enforcing regulations.

"BoatUS is on watch to ensure AIS remains the safety device it was intended to be," says David Kennedy, manager of BoatUS Government Affairs.

"We don't want boaters to choose between safety and privacy."

Two separate issues, one on each coast, show situations where electronic tracking would include not only monitoring ship traffic, providing positioning information, and initiating rescue operations, with real-life situations where the technology could be used in new ways.

Watch Out For The Whales

Along the Eastern Seaboard, a proposed change to federal policy aimed at protecting endangered North Atlantic right whales has roiled the bluewater playground of offshore anglers, particularly those involved in taking day clients far offshore to hunt pelagic species. NOAA Fisheries proposed changes to existing vessel speed regulations "to further reduce the likelihood of mortalities and serious injuries" to endangered right whales from vessel collisions that, along with commercial fishing gear entanglements, are leading causes of whale deaths, according to NOAA's ongoing Unusual Mortality Event study. Studies have shown that vessel speeds of 10 knots or less can reduce the danger of a collision being fatal to whales by 80% to 90%, according to NOAA. This rule was implemented in 2008 and applies to most vessels 65 feet and larger.

The proposed change expands seasonal speed zones from 10 localized zones along the East Coast stretching from Maine to Florida to that entire section of the coast, expands the zones offshore as far out as 100 miles, and extends the mandate from about five months to up to seven months a year.

The proposal would also shrink the boat-length minimum to 35 feet, because NOAA claims it now has enough evidence to prove that whale strikes from smaller boats are just as lethal to these endangered whales and calves. Everyone agrees that it's a complicated environmental problem, as there are now fewer than 350 right whales left, only 70 of which are reproductive females who, after giving birth, need to stay with their calves near the surface of the water for a few months, making both vulnerable to inadvertent vessel strikes.

BoatUS is sensitive to this problem and is willing to work on ways to help, but it did join several sportfishing groups in a letter critical of NOAA for trying to enact the speed limits without enough consultation with the recreational boating community. Many in these groups own larger recreational and charter fishing boats that operate offshore for the day, coming back to port by nightfall.

"The proposed rule doesn't quite take into account how boats operate, and doesn't take into account the needs boaters may have when the weather gets bad," says Chris Edmonston, vice president of BoatUS Government Affairs.

Screenshot of speed, heading, and location of ­ vessels equipped with AIS is tracked of the East Coast from Maine to New Jersey

The speed, heading, and location of ­every vessel equipped with AIS is tracked 24/7 by maritime agencies. (Photo:

BoatUS's concern is about safety, and about making sure boat operators are not limited in their ability to get back to port under deteriorating weather conditions.

"While there are weather exemptions in the proposed rule, the conditions for the exemptions are far too high, and there is no guidance on how exemptions will be approved or denied," Edmonston said.

No decision about creating this lower-speed zone to protect the right whales had been made as of press time. Our BoatUS Government Affairs team is monitoring the situation and will send out updates to members as news develops.

Traffic Cops?

Out west, BoatUS has aligned with our state partner, the Recreational Boaters of California, raising concern to the Los Angeles | Long Beach Harbor Safety Committee regarding a recommendation in its Harbor Safety Plan that small commercial vessels and pleasure vessels be equipped with an AIS. The safety recommendation is based on the Port of Los Angeles being the busiest container port in the Western Hemisphere, with more than 1,800 ship arrivals annually, which poses real safety concerns for recreational boats operating in the same waters.

While the Harbor Safety Committee's proposal is just a recommendation, and they are not advocating making AIS mandatory on recreational vessels, RBOC wants to make sure that AIS stays voluntary. "It is important to acknowledge that the mandate for commercial vessels to have AIS was established to enhance maritime security following 9/11," reads a joint RBOC/BoatUS statement. It is also used by NOAA to monitor and analyze fishing activity, improve marine mammal protection, and prioritize charting and surveying activities based on measured traffic volumes.


Sign up at to receive alerts regarding boating legislation that affects you.

"Expansion of the existing mandate to recreational vessels raises a number of significant public policy issues including privacy considerations as well as cost and operational challenges. These warrant an early and broad conversation with the recreational boating community."

BoatUS is staying vigilant on this issue as the use of this invaluable AIS technology evolves in the years ahead. Meanwhile, boaters should always follow speed restrictions, be observant in sensitive marine areas, and be clear on rules of the road, especially in busy ports.

"The primary purpose of AIS should remain marine traffic safety and situational awareness," says Edmonston.

Related Articles


Click to explore related articles

technology electronics news and issues boaters rights government affairs


Rich Armstrong

Senior Editor, BoatUS Magazine

A journalist by training, BoatUS Magazine Senior Editor Rich Armstrong has worked in TV news, and at several newspapers, then spent 18 years as a top editor at other boating publications. He’s built a stellar reputation in the marine industry as one of the most thorough reporters in our business. At BoatUS Magazine, Rich handles everything from boat and product innovation and late-breaking news, to compelling feature stories, boat reviews, and features on people and places. The New Jersey shore and lakes of lower New York defined Rich's childhood. But when he bought a 21-foot Four Winns deck boat and introduced his young family to the Connecticut River, his love for the world of boats flourished from there.