Bad Vibrations

Surfers battle enviro-surfers over a proposed jet-ski ban that would protect wildlife -- but threaten big-wave surfing at the legendary break known as Maverick's

The list of people wanting to speak is more than 100 names long by the start of the meeting, which will stretch well beyond six hours. People address many of the proposals before the council -- sites for a visitor's center, restricted zones for fishing, a host of ecological protections -- but by far the most controversial is the recommendation to ban personal watercraft. Morgan Reed, an environmental science major and volunteer with Bluewater Network, regales the crowd with tales of motorboats disturbing the quiet of her grandmother's lake, and says: "Jet skis in the sanctuary are as inappropriate as smoking in an operating room. Jet skis are about adrenaline -- not peace and serenity."

When Kimsey speaks, he submits 600 e-mails from Surfrider members across the country who support the ban on watercraft, then reads a finding from NOAA staff members that says watercraft have the potential to inflict "physical damage and behavioral modifications" on wildlife. "You don't have to hit a sea lion in the head to get his attention," says Kimsey, who earned a master's degree in biology from UC Santa Barbara. "If you come near enough to him, you can convince him to take his family and go elsewhere."

The pro-PWC camp, meanwhile, consists of a few boating safety instructors -- who argue that the issue is about operator behavior, not vessel design -- but the voice of tow-in surfers remains silent until nearly five hours into the meeting, when Frank Quirarte approaches the podium and slyly notes: "I think the lack of pro-PWC enthusiasts who have spoken tonight is a direct testament on how many PWC users are in the sanctuary." His colleague Don Montgomery, who directs boats to fallen surfers from a perch on the cliff overlooking Maverick's, poses a pointed question to the council: "Would NOAA put more importance on the possible protection of marine life than on the saving of human life?"

A jet-ski rider zooms away after towing a 
surfer into a wave at Maverick's, a 
technique imported from Hawaii during the 
past decade.
Frank Quirarte
A jet-ski rider zooms away after towing a surfer into a wave at Maverick's, a technique imported from Hawaii during the past decade.
"The PWC, hands down, is the best tool any 
coastal rescue unit can have," says Frank 
Frank Quirarte
"The PWC, hands down, is the best tool any coastal rescue unit can have," says Frank Quirarte.

But in the batch of recommendations it forwards after the July meeting, the advisory council does not consider the role of personal watercraft -- and volunteers like Quirarte and Montgomery -- in search-and-rescue missions at Maverick's. A few weeks after the public comment session, alerted to the startling oversight, the group holds a hastily arranged conference call to discuss its stance on safety vessels that aren't operated by government agencies. "The conversation went round and round, and they didn't reach a consensus, except a consensus to further examine the issue," says NOAA's Rachel Saunders. "Everyone was in favor of enhancing safety, but conversely, there were concerns about providing a false sense of security to surfers. We're not in the business of regulating surfing."

Montgomery is astounded. "I was really struck by the fact that the SAC committee had no idea whatsoever that PWCs have been involved in saving lives out there, every single year. They had no clue. Surfrider Foundation wasn't going to tell them that.

"In my mind, it's purely personal and selfish," he continues. "There are guys that surf Maverick's who don't have the ability to tow in to waves that are bigger, and consequently, they're out of the limelight now."

For a controversy that's being monitored around the world, the Monterey Bay personal watercraft battle still feels most personal to those who've made Maverick's a source of local pride. "I think this is a little bit of backlash against the hype [about surfing Maverick's]," Quirarte says. "But that doesn't make any sense, because this community -- from Half Moon Bay to San Francisco -- has really embraced Maverick's. They love it, it's something they can claim as a unique place in the world, and when we see a problem, we're the first ones to address it."

But now it's in the hands of the advisory council and NOAA, which are still reviewing a number of issues regarding personal watercraft use -- enforcement, permitting, safety operations, and exact definitions of the craft to be banned from the sanctuary. Under the latest recommendation, tow-in surfing would be allowed at Maverick's only when the waves reach 20 feet, and only in the early-morning hours on a permit basis, for up to 20 craft at a time, with exceptions for contests. Mike Kimsey considers this a good compromise with a pretty small impact on the environment, but also adds that he's been around too long to be optimistic about satisfying all the involved parties. "This has got to go through NOAA and Washington, D.C.," says Kimsey of the years-long process that will involve environmental impact studies and further public comment. "Who knows what's going to happen with the politics?"

But all politics, as they say, is local, and the controversy's impact on Maverick's is already plain to see.

"Some of those guys who surf with Doc [Renneker], we saw them the other day and went over to say hi, and they wouldn't say anything, just kept their hands down," says Quirarte, shaking his head. "And I thought, 'Oh great, this is as bad as junior high school.'"

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