An old fight over public access, recreational use and the protection of critical habitats is playing out anew in Kachemak Bay.
The Alaska Department of Fish and Game announced Thursday that it aims to change state regulation to repeal an existing prohibition on personal watercraft being used in critical habitat areas of Kachemak Bay and the Fox River Flats. The ban on the use of personal watercraft, often referred to as jet skis, has been in place since 2001.
There is a 30-day public comment period open until 5 p.m. on Jan. 6, 2020, before Fish and Game will decide to either adopt the change or take no action.
According to the section of the Alaska Administrative Code that prohibits their use, personal watercraft are defined as “a vessel that is less than 16 feet in length; propelled by a water-jet pump or other machinery as its primary source of motor propulsion; and designed to be operated by a person sitting, standing, or kneeling on the vessel, rather than by a person sitting or standing inside it.”
The proposed repeal of the personal watercraft ban is being done as a “stand-alone” regulation change. It is being conducted separately from the current ongoing revision to the management plan that governs the two critical habitat areas, according to a Nov. 19 memo from a Fish and Game biologist to members of the planning team working on that management plan revision.
The future draft of the Kachemak Bay and Fox River Flats Critical Habitat Areas Management Plan will not include a personal watercraft policy, according to the memo.
Should a repeal of the ban in the critical habitat areas go through, it would not affect the ban currently in place on personal watercraft in the waters contained within the Kachemak Bay State Park and Kachemak Bay State Wilderness Park.
Rick Green, a special advisor to the Fish and Game Commissioner and the point of contact for the proposed change, said this push came about now because interested user groups, including the Personal Watercraft Club of Alaska and the Alaska Outdoor Council, have been coming to Fish and Game throughout the last year asking for the critical habitat areas to be opened.
In the Nov. 19 memo, habitat biologist Tammy Massie wrote, “The governor’s office has decided to repeal the (personal watercraft) prohibition for Kachemak Bay and Fox River Flats (critical habitat areas).”
Green said the Department of Fish and Game ran the proposed change through a “litmus test” to see if opening the critical habitat area waters to personal watercraft would coincide with the department’s guiding principals and goals.
Green said repealing the prohibition does not go against the purpose of a critical habitat area. The purpose of Fish and Game critical habitat areas, according to Alaska code 16.20.500, “is to protect and preserve habitat areas especially crucial to the perpetuation of fish and wildlife, and to restrict all other uses not compatible with that primary purpose.”
“We already allow watercraft into the critical habitat area,” Green said, referencing boats that go in and out of the Homer Harbor and frequent the bay. “And we don’t see personal watercraft as being any more damaging to fish and wildlife perpetuation than a 16-foot (boat).”
The proposed change also revolves around a public access issue, according to Green. He said one of the Fish and Game guiding principals is to provide for the greatest long-term access to fish and wildlife resources for people, and that this regulation change would be in line with that.
“All the citizens of Alaska own Kachemak Bay and there’s a group of them that are being prohibited from using that,” he said.
Bob Shavelson, advocacy director at Cook Inletkeeper in Homer, disagrees. He said the vast majority of Alaska waters are already open to personal watercraft use, and that some areas simply need to be protected more than others.
“Over 99% of Alaskan waters are open to jet skis,” Shavelson said. “There’s places that you should say, you know, we’re not going to do that.”
The Fox River Flats Critical Habitat Area was created through state legislation in 1972, and the creation of the Kachemak Bay Critical Habitat Area was in 1974.
Shavelson argued that personal watercraft are not compatible with public use of the critical habitat ares because their design is “inherently different” than that of any other vessel traditionally seen in the bay.
“They are throw craft,” he said. “They are recreational vehicles. They are a lot of fun. I’ve ridden them a lot — I enjoy it. But, they don’t go from point A to point B. They will typically congregate in small areas, spin in circles, jump waves. They are capable of very high speeds — you know, over 65 miles an hour for just basic jet skis coming out these days.”
Shavelson said this adds up to safety concerns, threats to wildlife and a major change to the feel and culture of the Kachemak Bay area as it’s currently known and enjoyed.
Shavelson said he also takes issue that the proposed repealing of the personal watercraft ban is being attempted outside the scope of the management plan revision process for the critical habitat areas. That’s the proper place for these kinds of changed to be made, he said.
“From a process perspective, this is just bad government,” Shavelson said.
There are multiple authorities that help regulate what happens in Kachemak Bay. The Department of Fish and Game manages the waters within the Kachemak Bay and Fox River Flats Critical Habitat Areas. These waters make up the majority of the bay — it’s the water inshore of a north/south line that runs from Anchor Point on the north side of the bay to Point Pogibshi on the south side.
The Department of Natural Resources is the entity that oversees Kachemak Bay State Park. The park includes nearshore waters and inlets, mostly on the south side of the bay but also on the Homer side. Some of the waters included in Kachemak Bay State Park and the critical habitat areas overlap with each other.
Both the park and the critical habitat areas are regulated through their own, separate management plans. Both plans are in the process of being revised right now.
Dan Saddler, a DNR legislative analyst and communications director, said that if the use of personal watercraft was once again allowed within the critical habitat area waters of the bay, that doesn’t mean it would be allowed in the areas that overlap with Kachemak Bay State Park waters.
“If (personal watercraft) were allowed in the Critical Habitat area, that would leave most, but not all, of Kachemak Bay proper open to (personal watercraft) use,” Saddler wrote in an email. “(Personal watercraft) use would continue to be prohibited in the nearshore waters and inlets on the bay’s south side — as well as the nearshore waters off the southern Kenai Peninsula falling within the (Kachemak) Bay State Park — by the Park and Wilderness Park Management Plan.”
Saddler wrote that could change if that management plan were changed through its own revision process.
The issue of whether to lift the ban on personal watercraft in the critical habitat areas came up again back in 2016. As of 2017, it was still the position of biologists within Fish and Game that the prohibition should stay in place, according to a 2017 memo shared by Cook Inletkeeper. In the memo, Massie, the habitat biologist, and Joe Meehan, lands and refuges program coordinator, recommended keeping the ban in place.
“Based on the updated literature review, most of the concerns that led to the adoption of the PWC prohibition in Kachemak Bay and Fox River Flats (Critical Habitat Areas) in 2001 continue to be valid today,” they wrote. “Improvements in technology have addressed the pollution from 2-stroke engines that were one of the primary environmental concerns with PWC during the original 2000 literature review. However, the nature of PWC traffic, especially the capability to execute rapid changes in speed and direction in nearshore shallow waters, continues to have a high potential to impact habitats, marine organisms, wildlife, and other traditional user groups and those cannot be easily mitigated.”
A public notice of the proposed regulation change states that members of the public should comment if their interests could be affected. 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 not later than 5 p.m. on Jan. 6, 2020.
Locally, the Kachemak Bay State Park Advisory Board will be taking its own public comments on the personal watercraft issue at its Dec. 11 regularly scheduled board meeting at 5:30 p.m. at the Alaska Islands and Ocean Visitor Center, according to Chair Robert Archibald.