Jet Skis Suck
by Chad Nelsen
MAKING WAVES, June/July 1998
Lakes, Rivers and especially coastlines are Americas favorite places to visit and recreate. It is inevitable that as more people come to enjoy these rich and exciting natural resources that harmful impacts will also increase. However, as many of us are learning to tread more lightly, a particular group, whose numbers are growing at an alarming pace, are making a disproportionately large impact on the natural quality of our lakes, streams and coastal areas. The guilty group are collectively known as Personal Water Craft, or PWC, and include jet skis, water bikes and Sea-Doos.
Even more alarming than environmental damage caused by Personal Water Craft is the incredible rate that this recreational activity is growing. Jet skis are the fastest selling watercraft in America with over 1 million of these high speed water motor cycles carrying thrill riders along our shores. At some 200,000 units a year, jet skis now account for a third of all watercraft sold.
The primary reason that PWC are so harmful to the environment is that they are powered by two stroke engines. These internal combustion engines power either a water jet pump or fully covered propeller chamber and provide the craft with enormous thrust. Unfortunately these engines pollute the water and air, are very fuel inefficient and create an extreme amount of noise, disturbing both wildlife and people alike.
Two stroke engines run on a mixture of motor oil and gasoline. According to EPA statistics, two stroke engines are America's number one source of toxic water pollution (EPA). Two strokes discharge as much as one third of their fuel and oil unburned into the water and air, which means a two hour ride on a PWC dumps 2.5 gallons of gas and oil into the water. Hydrocarbons found in gas and oil float on the surface of the water and can settle within shallow ecosystems along the shoreline, a critical habitat area. This is the same type of engine that was banned from use in motorcycles years ago because of its contribution to noise and air pollution. It has been estimated that PWC contribute the equivalent of four Exxon Valdez spills to America's waters annually!
Marine enthusiasts, as well as hikers and campers, often complain that the high pitched, mosquito-like whine of PWC can ruin their wilderness experience by destroying the peace and quiet. PWC produce noise levels in the range of 85-105 decibels (dB) per unit. The American Hospital Association recommends hearing protection for occasional sounds above 85 Db. Not only does the noise of PWC bother others and potentially harm the rider, it can also prove detrimental to nearby wildlife. A controlled study of PWC on the San Juan Islands (Washington state) by the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute described how PWC, which lack low-frequency long distance sounds, do not warn surfacing birds or mammals of approaching danger until they are almost on top of them causing undo panic and disturbance. The high frequency sounds PWC produce in air and water also startle birds. Scientists in New Jersey observed PWC disrupting nesting Osprey and terns, who fly away from their nests and leave their eggs vulnerable to predators.
PWC are designed to travel into shallow water. This allows access to remote and sensitive shoreline areas and results in wildlife harassment. Wildlife biologists throughout the country have testified on the existing and potential impacts of PWC use. In California, biologists observed the separation of seal pups from mothers because of PWC activity nearby. In Florida, endangered manatees have been run over by PWC. The state's Game and Fresh Water Fish Commission also tentatively concluded that PWC, as opposed to conventional boats, produce larger flushing distances of water fowl due to their smaller size, higher speed, and larger spray. In a recent letter to San Juan County, officials at the Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife's Ecosystem Management Program have gone on record to report that they are becoming increasingly concerned with the effect of motorized personal watercraft [MPW], particularly jet skis, on both nesting birds and spawning salmon. And the state of Hawaii classified PWC as thrill craft and imposed strict areas of use for the watercraft in order to protect humpback whales who come to the islands to bear their young .
Not only are jet skis harmful to the physical and natural environment, they are also a danger to humans. Jet skis, now 12% of all watercraft, are responsible for up to 40% of all boating injuries. Often, those who are injured are not PWC riders, but are other boaters, sailboarders or swimmers who couldn't get out of their way.
As problems with PWC use continue to rise and sales continue to skyrocket, larger organizations are taking action to strictly limit or ban their use completely. The National Parks and Conservation Association, an organization with over half a million members, recently took steps to ban PWC from Olympic National Park. Similar bans are being considered at Glacier and Big Bend National Parks. Olympic National Park would join the list of other national parks, marine sanctuaries and wildlife refuges that have already banned or severely restricted PWC use, including Key Deer National Wildlife Refuge, Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary, Everglades, Yellowstone, and Dry Tortugas National Parks, and Canada's Waterton National Park. Other areas working towards regulation are Lake Tahoe, the coast of Maine, Monterey Bay, and Malibu.
It may be argued that PWC users have a right to enjoy their recreation along with fishers, boaters, swimmers, surfers and all others who enjoy marine and fresh water areas. However, the PWC industry and owners have made no attempt to correct the problems with the craft or their use, and their harm to the environment and people continues to rise at an alarming rate. The manufacture and use of PWC need to be regulated to reduce their polluting impacts and ensure safe use. The federal government should require the switch to quieter and less polluting 4-stroke engines such as those now found on motorcycles. In addition, PWC should be prohibited from sensitive natural areas and been kept at a safe distance from other recreational activities. Finally, PWC use should be policed the same way other vehicles are to ensure their safe use. For a more information on PWC and model guidelines on PWC regulation contact Kathryn Morgan, Bluewater Network, Earth Island, Institute, 300 Broadway, Suite 28, San Francisco, CA 94133 or call her at (415) 788-3666.
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Pearl, Phil & Sean Smith AWildlife Impacts of Personal Watercraft@, Preliminary Briefing Materials and Resources on Personal Watercraft and Their Use in the National Park System, April 30, 1997.
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