As local entities weigh in on a proposal to repeal the current ban on personal watercraft in critical habitat areas in Kachemak Bay, the Department of Fish and Game is giving people more time to weigh in.
Fish and Game announced earlier this month a proposal to change the Alaska Administrative Code to repeal a prohibition on the use of personal watercraft, or Jet Skis, in the Kachemak Bay and Fox River Flats Critical Habitat Areas. The prohibition has been in place since 2001.
“Jet Ski” is a brand name for a type of personal watercraft made by Kawasaki that is sometimes used colloquially as a name for personal watercraft.
The argument is that Jet Skis are no more harmful to the critical habitat areas than vessels currently traversing those waters and that a specific user group is being kept from utilizing public waters. Rick Green, special assistant to the commissioner, has said that user groups, including the Personal Watercraft Club of Alaska, have been petitioning Fish and Game to open the critical habitat areas to use for Jet Skis, and that’s why the issue has come up again at this time.
Fish and Game, effective Thursday, will extend the comment period for the proposed ban repeal by 15 days to Jan. 21, according to Green. The original comment period would have ended on Jan. 6.
“We had a handful of comments that came in talking about it (the comment period) being done over the holidays,” Green said. “And it was certainly never our intent to do that, so we felt that extending it 15 days would be reasonable.”
Both the Homer City Council and the Kachemak Bay State Parks Citizen Advisory Board have weighed in on the issue, and both recently passed resolutions asking Fish and Game to extend the comment period for 90 days. The parks advisory board passed its resolution last Wednesday, Dec. 11, and the city council passed its resolution at a special meeting on Monday this week.
The proposed change is being done as a stand-alone regulation change, completely separate from the ongoing revisions to the management plan that governs both critical habitat areas.
Kachemak Bay State Park and the Kachemak Bay and Fox River Flats Critical Habitat Areas are separate entities. The critical habitat areas are overseen by Fish and Game, while the park is overseen by the Department of Natural Resources. However, the boundaries of park waters overlap the critical habitat waters. The Kachemak Bay Critical Habitat Area begins at the mouth of the bay. A north-south line that runs from Anchor Point on the north side to Point Pogibshi on the south side marks where the critical habitat area begins. It includes most of the bay, including smaller bays and lagoons on the south side, including Tutka Bay, Sadie Cove, China Poot Bay and Halibut Cove.
If Fish and Game’s proposal to repeal the personal watercraft ban is successful, it wouldn’t change the fact that personal watercraft are still banned in state park waters, which also include some bays, lagoons and coves near the shore on the south side of the bay.
Several people who attended the Dec. 11 Kachemak Bay State Parks Citizen Advisory Board meeting commented that this sets up a conflict when it comes to enforcement. They wondered how Alaska State Parks could enforce its ban on personal watercraft in the park when there are no markers on the south side of the bay noting where Kachemak Bay State Park waters begin. Commenters also wondered whether Fish and Game would provide any resources to help with enforcement and education.
There is currently one park ranger for all of Kachemak Bay State Park.
At the state park advisory board meeting, a little more than 30 people commented that they are against repealing the ban on Jet Skis in the critical habitat areas, while six people testified that they are in favor of that happening, according to the board’s count.
Those who said they were in favor of Jet Skis being allowed in the critical habitat areas said the technology behind the machines has improved over the years. They advocated for the use of Jet Skis with four-stroke engines and suggested that those with two-stroke engines could still be banned.
The commenters also pushed back against the notion that Jet Skis are difficult to turn or that people riding them would not be able to see kayakers and other vessels in time to give them a wide berth — things that other people at the meeting put forth in their comments.
Barrett Moe, owner of Lower Peninsula Power Sports, said he’s been speaking with members of the parks advisory board for years about finding a compromise to allow Jet Skis to be used in the bay. He also said he saw most of the concerns he heard voiced by other meeting attendees as opinions about Jet Skis, rather than facts.
“I’ve been proposing the two-stroke and four-stroke thing — I said just legalize four-stokes,” Moe said. “Every single one of your main concerns is resolved with it, primarily. They’re a boat. They’re a fiberglass boat. You don’t have any of these other regulations on the vessels that are already allowed in Kachemak Bay.”
Moe said that through his business, he works on two-stroke outboard motors that are on vessels currently allowed in the bay.
“There’s no regulations on what exhaust diesels that are 100 times louder than any four-stroke personal watercraft,” he said. “They can go anywhere in Kachemak Bay; then can go in any (parts) of the state park. … Speed limits? There’s no speed limits on the boats. There’s boats that can go a whole lot faster than 130 miles an hour.”
Another meeting attendee, Mike Arno, said he’s supportive of responsible use of personal watercraft.
“I am for Jet Ski use in the bay. I am always for responsible (use),” he said. “I’ve heard a lot of people saying, well you’ve got irresponsible people. We have irresponsible drivers by the hundreds on the roads. Do we ban cars? No, we don’t.”
On the other side, the majority of people who commented at the meeting expressed concerns about Jet Skis travelling too fast, posing a threat to wildlife in shallow waters like otters, and not being able to stop in time if coming around a bend in a cove or lagoon too quickly. Others commented that the noise from Jet Skis would disturb the environment on the south side of the bay where several lodges, kayak tour businesses and adventure businesses operate.
Community member Kris Holderied said she was involved in the discussion of personal watercraft in the critical habitat areas when it was addressed in the critical habitat areas management plan revision. She said the issue she sees is that most of the vulnerable wildlife species the critical habitat areas were set up to protect are located in the shallow, near-shore waters on the south side of the bay. These, she said, are the same areas where people using Jet Skis are more likely to go.
“The other piece was, well, could you just cordon off those areas?” Holderied said. “And not let people go in there? And two things on that was, one, enforcement would be extraordinarily difficult to do and would require a lot more resources. So if you were going to do that, then you’d really have to be asking for more resources. And two, is then you’d get into some interesting things about what’s allowed for boats and what’s allowed for (personal) watercraft. … You get into some really difficult conflicts.”
Gene Gerken, president of Personal Watercraft Club of Alaska, was also in attendance at the state parks advisory board meeting. In his public comments, he said the club takes safety and etiquette seriously and educates all its members.
The resolution passed by the Kachemak Bay State Parks Citizen Advisory Board asked Fish and Game to suspend any further action on working to repeal the personal watercraft ban. If Fish and Game continues, the resolution asks for an explanation of how the “State of Alaska will enforce the current personal watercraft ban in state park waters with current staffing levels.” The resolution also asks for a 90-day comment period extension and for Fish and Game to provide scientific information supporting its proposal to repeal the ban.
A similar resolution passed at the special meeting of the Homer City Council on Monday also asks for a 90-day extension. In addition to asking for scientific information to back up the proposed ban repeal, the city council resolution also asked Fish and Game to provide an explanation for why this rule change is being attempted as a stand-alone change and not being considered as part on the ongoing revision of the Kachemak Bay Critical Habitat Area Management Plan.
No one at the city council meeting spoke in favor of repealing the ban on personal watercraft in the critical habitat areas.
Comments can be submitted to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game at: Rick Green, 333 Raspberry Rd, Anchorage, AK 99518-1565. The department will also accept comments by facsimile at 907-267-2499 and by electronic mail at firstname.lastname@example.org. Comments must be received no later than 5 p.m. on Jan. 21, 2020.