Personal watercraft, most often called Jet Skis, will be allowed in critical habitat waters of Kachemak Bay and the Fox River Flats for the first time since 2001.
The Alaska Department of Fish and Game announced the repeal of a regulation that had banned the watercraft on Friday. An aide for Lt. Governor Kevin Meyer signed the regulation change on his behalf and it was filed on Thursday, Dec. 10, and it becomes effective on Jan. 9, 2021. Rick Green, special assistant to the commissioner, said Fish and Game Commissioner Doug Vincent-Lang signed the regulation change on Nov. 20.
The previous regulation had banned personal watercraft from being used in both the Kachemak Bay Critical Habitat Area and the Fox River Flats Critical Habitat Area. The new regulation can be read here.
The critical habitat waters overlap with the waters of Kachemak Bay State Park, which currently prohibits personal watercraft. That may change, though, as the management plan for the park indicates the Department of Natural Resources will review its own regulation and possibly repeal it as well.
When Fish and Game first proposed the regulation change in late 2019, it revived an old fight over public access and the protection of critical habitats. The change was spurred in part by recreational groups like the Personal Watercraft Club of Alaska and the Alaska Outdoor Council approaching Fish and Game and asking for access to the waters, Green said, and in part by Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s administration.
Dunleavy had all state departments “do an exercise to find out if there were any overburdensome regulations stopping Alaskans from doing business” or enjoying the state, Green said.
In that review of its regulations, Fish and Game came upon the personal watercraft ban. The regulation pertaining to personal watercraft in Alaska Administrative Code was changed through a standalone process outside of the management plan that governs the critical habitat areas. The public comment period on the ban reversal was originally scheduled to end on Jan. 6 of this year and was later extended through Jan. 21.
Green said the department read through all of the thousands of public comments that were submitted on the issue. This final decision was delayed slightly, he said, because the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic slowed down the work of wading through the more than 2,700 comments the department received, he said.
“We considered all of the public comments,” he said.
In reaching this decision, Green said the department weighed the arguments for keeping the ban on personal watercraft in place — like increased noise, disturbance to wildlife and potential damage to critical habitats — against the arguments for lifting the ban — the wish for increased public access to the critical habitat waters and the fact that many modern Jet Skis are now made with four-stroke engines, as opposed to two-stoke engines which can be more damaging environmentally.
Green said many commenters asserted that boats already in use within Kachemak Bay do more damage than four-stroke engine Jet Skis.
“The decision makers for us really were that the mission of having the critical habitat area is for the perpetuation of fish and wildlife,” Green said.
The department found that there was no conclusive scientific data showing that repealing the personal watercraft ban would be contrary to that mission, he said.
That, along with “the changeover of the manufacturer going from two-stroke to four-stroke, and the fact that the public comments during the public comment period show a pretty big change in opinion since the ban was adopted in 2001,” were the deciding factors, Green said.
In addition to the regulation change, a no-wake zone 100 yards from shore for all watercraft in the marine environments of the Fox River Flats Critical Habitat Area is going to be added “for added protection of shorebirds,” Green wrote in a later email. These waters are located at the head of the bay. This zone will be added as an addendum to the Fox River Flats Critical Habitat Area Management Plan, through Vincent-Lang’s authority, Green said. The no-wake zone will also become effective starting Jan. 9, 2021.
Similar restrictions could be added in the future if the need arises, Green said.
Opponents of the ban being repealed testified and commented that the presence of Jet Skis in the bay could not only disturb animals and sensitive ecosystems, but also be a potential detriment to existing eco-tourism businesses such as guided kayaking, which rely on access to the bay’s natural environment.
There’s another complication: the boundary of the critical habitat waters overlaps with the waters of Kachemak Bay State Park, which currently prohibits personal watercraft. The park is overseen by the Department of Natural Resources while Fish and Game oversees the critical habitat areas.
Fish and Game’s regulation change came with no fiscal note and states “this action is not expected to require an increased appropriation.” That means no additional funding for enforcement or education on the difference between critical habitat waters and state park waters.
Kachemak Bay State Park has one ranger. Opponents of the ban repeal testified that they were worried about how the ban in state park waters would be maintained and enforced without additional resources. In anticipation of Fish and Game possibly repealing its regulation, however, DNR prepared an option to explore repealing its own personal watercraft ban.
The management plan that governs both Kachemak Bay State Park and the Kachemak Bay State Wilderness Park is in the process of being revised. It’s in the intent-to-adopt phase, and public comments are being accepted through Jan. 22. Under the section regarding personal watercraft, the plan includes a note that, should Fish and Game repeal its ban, the Division of Parks and Outdoor Recreation “may consider a similar change for consistent marine water management.”
Monica Alvarez, a natural resource manager for DNR, said the department is now going to review its own regulation regarding personal watercraft. A decision, however, won’t be known for some time, as the management plan for the parks must be adopted first, she said. The plan carries direction for the department, she said. Once it’s passed, DNR can take that direction to consider a similar regulation change, and then make a decision.
The intent-to-adopt version of the management plan for Kachemak Bay State Park and the Kachemak Bay State Wilderness Park can be read at dnr.alaska.gov/parks/plans/kbay/kbayplan.htm.