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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

Wednesday, Sep 3 2003
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"Industry will claim there's never been a documented case of a jet ski that's struck an animal," Smith continues. "But just because they're not killing them, the mere harassment can be just as bad. Flushing out of resting areas means a significant loss of energy, which can also lead to death."

And because life in Monterey Bay is so prized and diverse -- of the 116 federally listed threatened or endangered species in California, 26 reside in the sanctuary -- the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has long been struggling to regulate personal watercraft in the waters it governs. In the early 1990s, NOAA, spurred by widespread public support, first sought to implement a definition that would enable the agency to ban the craft, but the industry struck back, filing a lawsuit in federal court that accused the administration of unfairly singling out small boats. An industry win was overturned on appeal, and NOAA was allowed its ban of personal watercraft from all but a few special offshore zones. It was a hollow victory, however, because technological innovations -- including the advent of more powerful, less polluting engines that could support a three- or four-seat craft -- rendered the regulations out of date almost as soon as they were implemented.

"We've gotten a very consistent stream of phone calls over the years from people reporting sightings of these crafts outside the allowed zones," says Rachel Saunders, a NOAA spokeswoman. "In most of the cases, those craft didn't fit the definitions, and so were legally operating. It's been 10 years, the craft have changed, but if you're going to have a regulation, it should be effective. We've always been interested in updating the definition."

Knowing the time had come for NOAA to redefine its ban, Surfrider's San Mateo Chapter, spurred by the environmental concerns of Mark "Doc" Renneker, an oncologist and paddle surfer who was one of the first from San Francisco to ride Maverick's, began pressing the issue. (Renneker was on an international surfing trip during the reporting of this story and could not be reached for comment.) Although Surfrider's national directors say they support the actions of their individual groups, they have not shown any particular zeal in pursuing the issue nationwide. And during a similar controversy over tow-in surfing in Hawaii, the local chapter, chaired by legendary big-wave rider Peter Cole, sided with the pro-watercraft camp, helping to hammer out a compromise on usage. "People keep making a big deal out of the Oahu chapter," Mike Kimsey says. "God bless those guys, Peter Cole is one of my heroes, but we felt the Monterey Bay was a very unique environment, with far more concentrated populations and more endangered species."

Frank Quirarte rolls his eyes at that argument. "'Our ecosystem is completely different,' he says, but out of this side of his mouth, he's adopting studies on PWCs from Florida, from the north, from Lake Havasu. It's ridiculous," Quirarte says. "If you look at all of their writings, it's all about potential problems, potential this, potential that. I've been out there on jet skis for six years now -- when is this potential problem going to happen?"


Inside the University of California at Santa Cruz Inn and Conference Center, hotel employees are tearing down partitions to expand the grand ballroom, trying frantically to accommodate a crowd that has swollen to more than 400. It's a warm late-July evening, and most of the folks look like they've come straight from the beach, arriving in vehicles sporting surfboard racks or boat hitches, wearing baggy Hawaiian shirts, boardshorts, or summer dresses, their faces and limbs baked a deep, lasting brown from another season in the sun.

The turnout is huge for this meeting of the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary Advisory Council, an obscure but influential group of volunteer policy-makers that recommends regulatory changes to NOAA. The sanctuary stretches a shoreline length of 276 miles from Marin to Cambria, attracting all types of Californians who make their living -- or their lifestyle -- on the water, and the ballroom is filling with a quintessential cross-section of boaters, environmentalists, anglers, commercial fishermen, marine biologists, surfers, beachfront residents, industry representatives, and assorted government officials. Homemade signs abound: "Save our schools," says one, with a line of fish swimming across it; another reads, "It's not a freeway -- it's a habitat." A schoolteacher strides up the aisle with a guitar; later, she'll induce the audience to clap along to a song, "Protect the Ocean," that she wrote with her students.

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."

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Matt Palmquist

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