Personal watercraft, commonly known as Jet Skis, will once again be allowed in Kachemak Bay and the Fox River Flats near Homer.
Lt. Gov. Kevin Meyer signed off last Thursday on the lifting of a 19-year-old ban on the small watercraft in the bay. It goes into effect Jan. 9.
The decision was proposed by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game last year after Jet Ski enthusiasts, mainly the Personal Watercraft Club of Alaska, lobbied state officials for years.
The proposal was controversial and opposed by environmental groups that say state documents show personal watercraft are detrimental to marine life in the bay.
Bob Shavelson, advocacy director of Homer-based conservation group Cook Inletkeeper, said he believes the outcome of the most recent review leading to the removal of the ban was predetermined and ignored the best available science.
“I think it’s clear from this, and many other decisions, that the Dunleavy administration does not have a moral compass,” Shavelson said.
“(Alaska Department of Fish and Game Commissioner) Doug Vincent-Lang at Fish and Game is the master at politicizing scientific decisions,” Shavelson said of the process.
The change was proposed by Fish and Game, but an internal Fish and Game email obtained by Cook Inletkeeper states the decision was first made by Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s office.
The state imposed the uncommon ban in 2001 after a review, which determined that personal watercraft posed a danger to marine habitat because of their ability to quickly accelerate and change direction in shallow water.
A 2017 memo from Fish and Game determined there has been no evidence since the ban was imposed that supports lifting it.
Those who advocated for personal watercraft access said if skiffs and larger vessels are allowed in the bay, so too should personal watercraft.
A two-month public comment period, which ended in January, garnered 1,005 comments from people wanting the ban to remain. Over 1,600 commenters asked for the bay to be opened up to personal watercraft. Forty-one commenters did not take a position.
Vincent-Lang proposed the rule change, and did so understanding the long-held arguments on both sides, Fish and Game commissioner special assistant Rick Green said in March. The public comment period was intended to ferret out new information, not known information.
Green said Monday after reviewing the comments, the arguments on both sides hadn’t changed.
He said those who supported the ban said personal watercraft are used for thrills rather than transportation or fishing. He said the commenters argued allowing personal watercraft would impact marine life and be annoying to others in the bay, damage habitat, increase pollution, impact businesses like kayak and hiking guides and be a danger to those operating them and others in the bay.
Those who oppose the ban argued personal watercraft are no more damaging than other boats, and since they are registered like any other boat, should be treated the same. They argued the science used to support the ban is inconclusive.
In the end, Green said, Vincent-Lang didn’t find that personal watercraft has a bigger impact biologically on fish and wildlife than the other boats permitted in the bay.
Socially, Green said, there is a difference, but Vincent-Lang was focused on the biological impacts.
“This is really a social comment on whether people like them or not,” Green said.
Green also noted that when the ban was passed, personal watercraft used two-stroke engines. Today, they use four-stroke engines, which pollute less.
In four public comment periods between 1999 and 2016, most people who participated were in favor of the ban. Green said the comment period was not designed to be a vote, but did point out that a majority of participants were against the ban.
“That does show public opinion has changed in the past 20 years,” he said.
In addition to removing the ban, the department will be instituting a no-wake zone 100 yards from shore for all watercraft in the marine area of the Fox River Flats Critical Habitat area, Green added Tuesday. The zone is being added to help reduce impacts for shorebirds.
Correction: Based on information from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, an earlier version of this story incorrectly said the no-wake zone would be 100 feet from shore. The no-wake zone will be 100 yards from shore.