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Now you may enter Canadian waters without reporting – unless you land

It’s not the kind of fish story that had a happy ending. Boats impounded. Equipment seized. Fines in the thousands of dollars. That’s what could happen for local boaters whose vessels crossed into Canadian waters. Thanks to loosened rules in Canadian law, that’s changed.

Boaters across the Buffalo Niagara region – and the Great Lakes – are relieved.

“Good news,” said Terry Hoy, who retired with his wife, Donna, aboard their 42-foot Kadey-Krogen trawler Meridian.

The Hoys, of Green Cove Springs, Fla., docked Friday morning at Gateway Harbor in North Tonawanda after making a morning-long trek on the Erie Canal from Gasport. When the couple  heads back toward Ohio for a family reunion next week, there will be no reason to worry about guessing where the imaginary boundary is in Lake Erie, especially when they hit an often confusing dogleg in the international border near Lackawanna.

Under the new Canadian law, boaters and anglers may cross into Canadian waters without first registering with Canada's customs officials. Docking a boat or venturing onto Canadian soil still requires customs intervention, according to the Canada Border Services Agency. The new law includes the entire boundary between the United States and Canada from Alaska to Maine.

Easing anxiety and boosting tourism is just what Bob Runciman, a Canadian senator representing Ontario’s Thousand Islands and Rideau Lakes areas, had in mind when he sponsored the bill in the Canadian parliament, which was put into law last month. The law absolves American boaters of the duty to report to Canadian authorities when entering Canadian waters as well as Canadian operators who enter American waters without docking before returning home.

“The intent really was to make a less confusing, less onerous system and encourage tourism and harmonize with the U.S. practice,” said Barry Raison, a spokesman for Sen. Runciman. “It takes pressure off Border Services spending an inordinate amount of time on low-risk vessels.”

The U.S. Border Patrol traditionally has not required Canadian vessels to report to American authorities unless they anchor in its waters or lands on U.S. soil.

Since 2013, the Hoys spent their days on Lake Erie and Lake Ontario, Lake St. Clair, Lake Huron and Lake Michigan, not to mention the Mississippi River, Intracoastal Waterway and Chesapeake Bay. Navagating the international boundary line in the Great Lakes was among their few aggravations.

“Before you went on their side, you were supposed to call in there,” Hoy said. “What a mess.”

John Zilgme, of Pendleton, right, and his father, Zig Zilgme, left, and Rick Berti get the boat launched as they head out to fish as American boaters at Aqua Lane in Tonawanda on Friday, July 7, 2017. (John Hickey/Buffalo News)

Canadian authorities required operators of fishing boats, pleasure cruisers, kayaks – and even Jetskis – to call customs and announce their entry one they arrived in Canada’s waters. They were required to provide their passport or enhanced driver’s license and watercraft identification numbers and answer questions.

“It wasn’t that big of a hassle, but it will be nice without it,” said John Zilgme, a recreational fisherman from Pendleton.

Not that big of a hassle for those who knew about the Canadian law – or followed it. Failing to report to Canadian customs – or forgetting to – when boating or drifting across the imaginary line into Canada threatened to be costly – in terms of time and money.

Local boaters admit that the anxiety over the border was palpable. Michael Raimondo, of Wheatfield, rents a slip on Tonawanda Island for his boat and Jetski and spends a lot of time on the calmer side of Grand Island in the west Niagara River. The problem is that there’s a narrow sliver of American water there. Most of it is in Canada.

“You’re so used to this water, you kind of take for granted when you’re on the west (Niagara) River,” said Raimondo.

Although Raimondo hasn’t had an encounter with Canadian authorities, he said he noticed a much heavier presence of border patrol on both the U.S. and Canadian sides in recent years.

“It would be nice to know exactly what’s going on, so you don’t get in trouble,” Raimondo said.

For other recreational boaters and fisherman in the Buffalo Niagara region, the stories they’d heard – often from a friend of a fisherman who knew another fisherman’s friend who was winched by a Canada Border Services Agency patrol boat or underwent three hours of interrogation at a customs office – were plenty enough to scare them away from the Canadian waters of Lake Erie, Lake Ontario or the Niagara River. Or scare them scrupulous.

Recreational fisherman Don Hirschbeck, of Tonawanda, pulled out a notebook Friday showing his log of confirmation numbers he still receives from Canadian Customs when fishing near Fort Erie, Ont.

Why does Hirschbeck still announce his arrival in Canada on a toll-free number they provide?

“Because no one told me not to,” he said. “It takes me two minutes to call in.”

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