Raging Waters

When residents of San Juan County, Washington gathered to sign a petition to ban personal watercrafts (PWCs) in the waters surrounding the San Juan islands, they did so with the utmost confidence. Indeed, the county’s small towns, located near the Canadian border, overwhelmingly supported an ordinance to ban PWCs (marketed by Kawasaki as Jet Skis) and preserve the habitats of oceanic wildlife, like the orca whale.

Now the Personal Watercraft Industry Association (PWIA) and six other area plaintiffs are filing suit, arguing that the ban is a breach of their freedom to use the waters for recreation. Yet residents of the area, which was designated as a marine sanctuary in 1992 by the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), say the ban is the only possible protection for the island environment, which is under attack by the unregulated and negligent use of PWCs.

“People who use these craft have demonstrated a lack of judgment and are looking for speed and thrills,” says John Evans, a San Juan county commissioner. “They are particularly disruptive to birds, who are affected by PWCs traveling at 40 to 70 miles-per-hour, and could harm our pods of orca whales.” Evans has used plastic rafting ducks as test subjects to demonstrate the disruption of PWCs on local wildlife. “Common sense says that wildlife cannot get out of their way,” he says.

Attempts to regulate the use of PWCs have increased following their restriction in the Monterey Bay Marine Sanctuary in California. A U.S. District Court of Appeals upheld the restriction in 1995. Similar bans have been enacted or are under consideration in parts of Washington, Oregon and the Florida Everglades.

Opponents like Chris Hodgkin, attorney for Zzoomers, a PWC rental company that could go out of business as a consequence of the ban, says, “The ban flies in the face of the Washington State constitution. There are laws in the books prohibiting the unsafe use of watercraft and the harassment of wildlife.”

Yet recent statistics compiled by the U.S. Coast Guard tell a different story. PWCs were involved in 3,002 accidents and 56 deaths in 1994. “These are promoted as being thrill craft, so it’s not surprising people are getting hurt,” says Rhea Miller, a San Juan County Commissioner.