This could be Ghost Tree’s last winter and photogs’ last chance to get pictures of surfers towing into epic waves there. Starting in mid-March 2009, motorized personal watercraft (MPWC), or JetSkis, will no longer be allowed to operate at tow-in spots like Ghost Tree and Moss Landing within the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary. Use of MPWC at Mavericks will be limited to a short season lasting from December through February.

The NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) and MBNMS (Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary) announced their decision today as part of their new management plan that’s been seven years in the making. While not directed at big-wave or tow-in surfers, the new plan will definitely change the face of their sport in this area.

While a new management plan may have been needed for the Sanctuary as a whole, limiting the use of MPWC in high-surf areas like Ghost Tree and Mavericks directly endangers the lives of the surfers, even if they’re able to paddle into the waves. Even though Jeff Clark surfed Mavericks by himself for years without the help of MPWC, he still says he wishes he had them. “There were times where I had to swim for over an hour to get back to the jetty wall,” he said. An exhausting, dangerous swim.

MPWC don’t just make it easier to tow into monstrous waves, they’re also necessary for rescues. When asked about Ghost Tree and what will happen when JetSkis are banned there, Clark said, “Maybe they’ll try to paddle surf it, and if that happens, you may see somebody die.” At home at Mavericks, the situation’s not much different. Yes, surfers there have been given a three-month window in the winter to use MPWCs, but there's no saying that waves will appear in that limited time.

Surfers will always try to find a way to do what they live for. As many have said, it’s not a hobby. It’s a lifestyle. “Our harbor district…they don’t want to come out and do rescues, and when guys are surfing out there, we do all the rescuing,” said Clark. “So if you take the tool to rescue somebody that gets hurt surfing Mavericks, you can directly blame this absurd law if anybody dies.”

So why the sudden change in regulations when surfers have been using MPWCs quite happily in these areas for years? Simply put, it was a loophole that nobody caught. In today’s press release it states that regulatory changes include, “restoring the original limitation of motorized personal watercraft to four areas off the harbors in Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary, and including a wintertime zone for tow-in surfing at the famous ‘Mavericks’ surfing spot.”

"'Original limitations' is supposed to read 'original intent,’"said Scott Kathey with MBNMS. When the regulations were first drafted in 1992, something else was missed. “The fact that the definition was not robust enough to keep up with industry changes was not something NOAA anticipated at the time and that’s what we’re trying to fix,” he said. When it says 'restore,' it’s really to do what we had intended to do in 1992. Due to basically a weak definition, it was quickly subverted by industry design changes.”

The weak definition he’s referring to was what constituted a MPWC at the time. First, it had to be 15-foot or less. Second, it needed to be capable of exceeding 15 knots. "Last," said Kathey, “here’s the kicker: …and carries not more than an operator and one passenger. The built capacity of it is to only carry two people.” The same year that regulation went into effect, however, three-seater JetSkis started showing up. For that original definition to apply, all three criteria had to be met. “It was just a loophole that opened up and these folks were certainly legal to take these three-seater crafts wherever they wanted to,” he said. That loophole has now been closed and the definition will include the types of JetSkis in use today.

Although this new plan and the new regulations were announced today, nothing goes into effect until mid-March. When it does, surfers face civil penalties and fines if they are caught using MPWCs outside of a legal zone. Ghost Tree will not be one of the legal zones. That fine, to start, is $500. Subsequent fines can be double or triple and could result in having the MPWC seized after repeated offenses. Primarily, the NOAA office for law enforcement and the United States Coast Guard will enforce the MBNMS regulations. They will be assisted by the California Department of Fish and Game, and state parks that have a cooperative enforcement relationship with NOAA.

Many have argued that Ghost Tree is a lot like Mavericks, and Kathey said Ghost Tree was reviewed in the decision making process. “We reviewed Ghost Tree on that basis: Is it just like Mavericks? And we came to the determination it’s not,” he said. “To get to Ghost Tree, you have to launch in Monterey Harbor and you have to transit all the way around Monterey Peninsula in high surf, and on the way, you’re going to pass through, in just your transit to the site, no less than six marine protected areas.”

Even Mavericks has environmental impact concerns, which is why they were given only a three-month window to use MPWC. “We think we’ve been able to minimize impacts because we’ve put that window from December through February, so most of the wildlife concerns that we had there are going to be diminished at that time,” said Kathey.

Jeff Clark is not convinced. “I offered to give them a complete tour of the area that they were going to govern,” he said. “They never once got in the water. They’re equating a JetSki to something that’s harmful to the environment, which they don’t know. They’ve never gone in the water, they’ve never gone into these areas with anybody to actually firsthand see what the impact is, and if they did, they’d realize there is no impact.

“We all go tow-surfing on the beachbreak [at Moss Landing] and as we’re motoring out, the sea otters are swimming around us. They’re sitting there in their little flotilla of about 30 of ’em, and they’re all just hangin’ out… life is good,” he said.

Kathey said Moss Landing was not reviewed in the decision making-process because it was not seen to be on par with Mavericks and Ghost Tree. He also said they have reviewed the environmental impact of JetSkis and have the science to back it up. A lot of information is available on the MBNMS website:

As for JetSkis themselves, Clark thinks they’re the cleanest, most scrutinized boat in the ocean and they’ve been really good about regulating what goes on up north and at Mavericks. “My question to the people at Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary is why haven’t they gone to check out Mavericks when the waves are giant so that they can see what’s really going on there?” he said.

Obviously there are two sides to this very passionate argument, and while the NOAA has made a decision today, it clearly won’t make everyone happy. Are JetSkis really harmful to the environment? The surfers say no and the NOAA says yes. But we have to look at the alternative. Without JetSkis, people will be forced into using boats that have a far bigger environmental impact in order to conduct high-surf rescues and get people into massive waves. Surfers are known for pushing the envelope, though, and always finding a way. We expectantly await the changes to come.

—Maggie Yount