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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Jet Skis: Aquatic Motorbikes

Air Date: Week of

The racket of a loud motorcycle out on the water: the jet ski controversy is here. Under a new proposal by the National Park Service jet skis would be banned or restricted in all but 12 of the nation's national parks. The move is the latest twist in the heated debate about jet skis. Sales are booming, to the dismay of those who say the vehicles are noisy, dirty and dangerous. Rosy Weiser reports from San Francisco, one city that's recently moved to muffle the jet ski.


CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. Under a new proposal by the National Park Service, jet skis would be banned or restricted in all but 12 of the nation's national parks. The move is the latest twist in the heated debate about jet skis. Sales are booming, to the dismay of those who say the vehicles are noisy, dirty, and dangerous. Rosy Weiser reports from San Francisco, one city that's recently moved to muffle the jet ski.

(A boat engine revs up)

WEISER: At the foot of the Golden Gate Bridge, 5 men slide their boats into the water and start their engines. The weather out here is often windy and the water is usually choppy, perfect conditions for a daredevil like Ramone Alvarez.

ALVAREZ: I personally enjoy faces of waves that are a minimum of 6 feet high to 10 feet high. That's perfect for me. I personally like to jump them.

WEISER: Mr. Alvarez rides what manufacturers call a personal watercraft, but what's commonly called a jet ski: a brand name that gives a better idea of what these maneuverable little machines are like.

ALVAREZ: Hanno and I do what we call nose stabs. You jump into the air, you turn your ski in midair, upside down, and then you stab directly into the water. And when you do it right, you submerge. I mean, you can't even see us. And it's a thrill that you can't get riding on flat water.

(Water splashes)

WEISER: And it's a thrill Mr. Alvarez won't be able to enjoy in San Francisco waters much longer. The city moved this month to ban jet skiers within a quarter mile of its shoreline. Supervisor Gavin Newsom says the tiny, high- powered boats, which reach speeds upwards of 60 miles an hour, are a threat to people and wildlife.

NEWSOM: We have a lot of swimmers in the Bay. And when you look at the surfers and you look at the wind-surfers and the kayakers that are being threatened by these very loud, very quick and wave-hopping machines, we've had a lot of complaints. We have sea lion pups in the bay that are lost because these jet skis fly right through.

WEISER: One group that pushed hard for the ban was the Earth Island Institute. Conservation director Sean Smith says what's happening in San Francisco reflects a growing national irritation with jet skis. Or what he calls "floating chainsaws."

SMITH: No matter where you are, if you're on the shore, if you're on top of a mountain or down on a dock, you hear that jet ski. Whereas the jet skier may be totally oblivious to the person that's fishing, the person that's hiking along the shore, or the person that's mountain climbing.

WEISER: Now other California counties are considering jet ski restrictions modeled on San Francisco's. Bans or restrictions have already been imposed on several California lakes, as well as along the Florida keys and around the San Juan Islands in Washington State. Also, the National Park Service has just announced limits in some areas. But the concerns go beyond noise and nuisance.

(A jet ski engine)

WEISER: This Earth Island Institute video shows a test where a jet ski was put in a tank of water and run continuously for an hour and a half.

SMITH: After 95 minutes we scraped the side, and the entire side of the tank is covered with gas and oil.

WEISER: Sean Smith says these vessels are big polluters. According to the state of California, jet skis and other boats with similar engines dump up to a third of their fuel directly into the water. Meanwhile, the state says the half million boats of this type here produce as much smog as 4 million cars. These environmental problems have led the California Air Resources Board and the Federal Environmental Protection Agency to issue new pollution standards for these boats. But jet ski manufacturers say the pollution statistics have been exaggerated. John Donaldson, the executive director of the Personal Watercraft Industry Association, says history shows these vehicles aren't a big problem.

DONALDSON: CARB and EPA have been regulating automotive engines for over 30 years. This year, they decided to regulate marine engines. This year. One of the things that tells me is that the level of pollution produced by recreational marine engine use is 30 years down the priority list for the people whose responsibility it is to oversee the clean-up of the air and water in our country.

WEISER: Mr. Donaldson won't say why, but he thinks jet skis are being unfairly singled out. Regulators offer a simple reason. They're paying more attention these days because pollution laws are getting tighter, and jet skis are the fastest-growing part of the boating industry, with over a million now in use and about 200,000 new sales a year. But jet ski enthusiasts worry that restrictions like the ones in San Francisco don't merely target pollution. They target a particular kind of recreation. That worries Mark Denny, a lobbyist with the International Jet Sports Boating Association. He says public waterways should be available for all kinds of boaters, and he fears environmentalists won't stop with jet skis.

DENNY: Hey, maybe they'll try and get personal water craft off the water, and next they'll try and get fishing boats off the water, and next they'll try and get some other type of motor boat off the water, so the canoers and the kayakers can have the water to themselves.

WEISER: For now, bending to pressure, the industry is shaping up. They're building cleaner engines, and some are also working on quieter models. And John Donaldson of the manufacturer's group says any remaining problems, like reckless driving and harassment of wildlife, can easily be remedied.

DONALDSON: If you say, well only personal watercraft do this, well the boat doesn't do it, the operator does. That's why you need education. That's why you need enforcement. That's why you need awareness.

WEISER: The need for boating education programs and better enforcement of maritime law is one area, at least, where both sides see eye to eye. But Sean Smith of the Earth Island Institute says manufacturers can't plead innocent to the impact of their product.

SMITH: Jet skis are advertised as and marketed as high-speed, adrenaline-pumping thrill craft. They use words like "aggressive handling," "hard- charging," and "speed so fast it'll pin your ears to your head." Then what happens is industry will come back and say well, it's a few bad apples that are spoiling this for everyone. And we point to their ads saying, "Look, these bad apples are using the product exactly the way you are marketing them to be used."

(A jet ski engine revs up; water splashes)

WEISER: Back in San Francisco, the group of jet skiers docks and packs up their gear, knowing their days of riding here and many other places are numbered. But they're not ready to beach their boats for good.

MAN: There's going to be nowhere left for us to do it other than in Mexico (laughs), I mean, pretty soon we'll be doing our monthly trips to Mexico.

WEISER: For Living on Earth, I'm Rosy Weiser in San Francisco.

MAN 2: Ah, I gotta do that after a ride. Oh man, I did this nose stab, and I didn't get it all the way turned. I hit a nice big wave but I didn't get it rotated. And I went in like this. And my finish was sticking up, I slapped it so hard it ripped my helmet off.

(Men laugh)

MAN 3: It ripped your helmet off?

MAN 2: (laughs) It ripped my helmet off.



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