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Resource Management Issues:
Motorized Personal Watercraft FAQ

Frequently Asked Questions
About Motorized Personal Watercraft (MPWC)
Within Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary


Why does the marine sanctuary regulate skis and other motorized personal watercraft?

Motorized Personal Watercraft (MPWC), often referred to as "jetskis"® or simply "skis", include several small vessel designs that share similar performance characteristics. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), which manages Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary (MBNMS), has restricted the use of MPWC within the sanctuary since 1992 because their high speed and maneuverability pose a unique and significant threat of disturbance to sanctuary habitats and wildlife through persistent and repetitive operation within sensitive nearshore environments that are usually safe from such intensive mechanized activity. Potential impacts include physical damage to marine life and shallow habitats and behavioral modification and site abandonment/avoidance by sea birds, marine mammals, and sea turtles. In addition to environmental impact threats, conflicts have persisted between MPWCs and other recreational ocean users due to the erratic noise signature and operating pattern of MPWC.

Why doesn't NOAA apply the same restrictions to paddle craft and motorboats that it applies to MPWC within MBNMS?

MPWC are small, fast, and highly maneuverable craft that possess unconventionally high thrust capability and horsepower relative to their size and weight. This unique characteristic enables them to make rapid, hair-pin turns at high speed, while maintaining controlled stability. MPWC commonly accelerate and decelerate repeatedly and unpredictably, and routinely travel at high speeds directly toward shore. Conventional boats cannot perform or survive such extreme maneuvers. They slow down when approaching shore, and typically travel from point-to-point at slower speeds, with more gradual changes in speed and direction. Thus conventional motorboats pose a lower threat of wildlife disturbance than MPWC because their presence is less intrusive, less startling, and less severe. Individual MPWC operations are often focused within a distinct nearshore area, producing disturbance effects to wildlife that are more intensive and sustained than those from conventional motorboats passing through the same operating area. MPWC also have the ability to leap-frog along the shoreline to alternate riding areas, while passing through sensitive nearshore habitats at speeds and distances unattainable by paddle craft. While conventional motorboats, and paddle craft do cause disturbance to marine wildlife, the disturbance is typically more limited in intensity, time, and scale, allowing for less restrictive management approaches.

The sanctuary addresses threats from conventional motorboats through discharge and abandonment regulations and educational outreach. The sanctuary addresses threats from paddle craft through seasonal on-water interpretive programs and educational outreach. The sanctuary works with the Coast Guard to manage ship traffic, protecting sanctuary wildlife and habitats through careful establishment of shipping lanes, federal discharge regulations, and industry outreach. In short, NOAA applies differing management tools (zones, shipping lanes, regulations, field interpretive programs, educational outreach, etc.) to each threat, based on the nature of the threat and the most effective means to address it.

This adaptive management approach by MBNMS was validated by the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia in 1995 [PWIA v. the Department of Commerce, NOAA, 48 F.3d 540, (D.C. Cir. 1995)] in response to a legal challenge to the MPWC regulations within the sanctuary. In its final ruling, the court stated:

An agency does not have to "make progress on every front before it can make progress on any front." United States v. Edge Broadcasting Co., 113 S. Ct. 2696, 2707 (1993). Agencies often must contend with matters of degree. Regulations, in other words, are not arbitrary just because they fail to regulate everything that could be thought to pose any sort of problem. Las Vegas v. Lujan, 891 F.2d 927, 935 (D.C. Cir. 1989); Louisiana v. Verity, 853 F.2d 322, 332 (5th Cir. 1988). This is a common principle, well known not only in administrative law cases but also in constitutional cases raising equal protection challenges to economic regulation.

The record is full of evidence that machines of this sort [jet skis and other thrill craft] threatened the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary. NOAA received written comments and testimony from marine scientists, researchers, federal agencies, state agencies, state and local governments, business organizations, and more than a hundred citizens on the issue of regulating these machines. Everyone agreed_personal watercraft interfered with the public's recreational safety and enjoyment of the Sanctuary and posed a serious threat to the Sanctuary's flora and fauna. The concept of a "sanctuary" entails elements of serenity, peace, and tranquility. Yet the commenters described instances of personal watercraft operators harassing sea otters and other marine mammals, disturbing harbor seals, damaging the Sanctuary's kelp forests, menacing swimmers, divers, kayakers, and other recreational users, and generally disrupting the esthetic enjoyment of the Sanctuary. All concerned recommended either prohibiting personal watercraft outright or restricting them to specific areas in the Sanctuary. No one urged NOAA to do nothing about the problem.

If MPWC are Class A vessels, according to the Coast Guard, why have they been singled out and regulated differently than any other Class A vessel?

The Recreational Boating Product Assurance Division of the U.S. Coast Guard has determined as a practical matter that the term ''Class A'' vessel has no significant meaning insofar as Coast Guard regulations are concerned, except with regard to fire extinguisher regulations. No matter how MPWCs are classified, NOAA and other agencies regulate MPWCs differently from other vessels because of the unique performance capabilities and operational characteristics of MPWCs.

What is NOAA's official definition of a Motorized Personal Watercraft (MPWC)?

The official NOAA definition of MPWC for Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary is codified at Title 15 of the Code of Federal Regulations, section 922.131 (15 CFR 922.131).

Where can I operate my MPWC within the marine sanctuary?

NOAA has established 5 authorized MPWC riding zones adjacent to the four harbors within the sanctuary. Motorized personal watercraft may launch only within the identified harbors and must proceed directly to the operating zone outside each harbor through the specified access route. Zone boundaries are marked by buoys and navigation aids.

mpwc zones in MBNMS

zone 5 motorized personal watercraft map

Is NOAA considering revising the restrictions on MPWC in the sanctuary?

A recent rulemaking process for MPWC restrictions within the sanctuary concluded in 2008, and NOAA is now enforcing the regulatory restrictions that emerged from that process. Since the agency completed a 7-year public process to revise the MPWC regulations, there are no plans to initiate a new revision process in the near future. The sanctuary will continue its ongoing regulatory outreach programs as well as enforcement efforts to promote compliance with those regulations.

Who is responsible for my safety when I enter the national marine sanctuary?

Each individual is responsible for planning personal activities within any marine protected area and must consider any special rules and restrictions together with the natural conditions they may encounter there. National parks, wildlife refuges, and national marine sanctuaries all have some restrictions that limit individual actions in order to protect and preserve the natural resources within their boundaries, and such restrictions must be factored into each person's decision and plans before entering these wild places.

What's the sanctuary's policy on the use of skis for surf rescue?

The sanctuary's recreational ski restrictions do not apply to skis used by public safety agencies for surf patrols and rescue. Lifeguards and other safety professionals have used MPWC for surf rescue throughout the sanctuary since 1992, and continue to do so with the full support of NOAA.

The unique design capabilities that enable MPWC to access sensitive and secluded nearshore wildlife areas are the very same capabilities that make them a perfect tool for rescuing victims caught in punishing surf or rocky wash zones. The speed and quick reflex of MPWC enable nearshore rescues by experienced lifeguards that were not possible in years past. But such dangerous rescue operations require planning and implementation by trained and coordinated public safety rescue professionals working within an emergency management system. NOAA's regulations fully support volunteer MPWC rescue teams that are trained and supervised by professional public safety agencies qualified to perform surf rescue. But the decision to use volunteers for such dangerous work is solely the prerogative of those agencies. Each public safety agency would determine its own training and proficiency requirements for any such program and would assume full liability for its volunteers.

rescue jet ski in action

What is the sanctuary's policy on the use of skis for surf rescue at Mavericks?

Providing consistent and effective surf rescue services at Mavericks is a public safety issue that requires planning and implementation by trained and coordinated public safety rescue professionals working within an emergency management system. NOAA regulations have always supported the use of MPWC by public safety agencies for surf rescue and patrol anywhere in the sanctuary and at any time of the year. Any government agency responsible for public safety at Mavericks is free to recruit, train, certify and supervise others (including volunteers) to assist the agency in surf rescue functions as it deems necessary.

  • For an expanded statement about NOAA's policy regarding use of MPWC for surf rescue at Mavericks, click here.
  • For a bulleted list of comments regarding use of MPWC for surf rescue at Mavericks, click here.

rescue jet ski in action

What are the NOAA restrictions for recreational use of skis at Mavericks?

Recreational use of MPWC at Mavericks is allowed only when High Surf Advisories are in effect for San Mateo County from December through February. For more detailed information, maps, and downloads, go to "MBNMS Regulations for MPWC at Zone 5 (Mavericks)".

jet ski and surfer at Mevericks

Where can I find more details about NOAA's 2008 modification of MPWC zoning and MPWC definition within Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary?

Whenever a federal agency proposes to create new regulations or modify existing regulations, federal law requires that one or more public notices be printed in a daily publication known as the "Federal Register". The notice(s) must provide, among other things, details about what the proposed action is, why the agency deems it necessary, opportunities for public comment, and when the action takes effect. Multiple Federal Register notices were published between 2001 and 2008 about proposed changes to MPWC regulations within the sanctuary. The final Federal Register notice for NOAA's 2008 modification of MPWC zoning and definition within Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary was published on November 20, 2008 as part of a larger group of regulatory actions by NOAA. You can download the entire 54-page notice (325KB PDF*) here and turn to page 70499 to read about the regulatory changes for MPWC under heading J., Clarify and Update the Use of Motorized Personal Watercraft in MBNMS. A question & answer (Q&A) section about MPWC regulation begins at the bottom of column three on page 70519 and ends at the end of column one on page 70522.

Did the public get to weigh in on NOAA's 2008 regulatory modifications for MPWC within the sanctuary?

Yes. The regulatory modifications were finalized after an 8-year public process that involved thousands of participants and hundreds of public comments about MPWC operations within the sanctuary. NOAA summarized public comments and provided written responses in the November 20, 2008 Federal Register notice available for download above. To view the public's comments about MPWC regulation within Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary & NOAA's responses, click here.

public meeting/discussion regarding mpwc in MBNMS

Is there scientific and public information demonstrating that MPWC cause a unique disturbance to marine wildlife?

Yes. To view some of the published information NOAA has consulted regarding impacts of MPWC on marine wildlife, click here.

Some have claimed that scientific studies, observations, and public testimony about negative impacts upon marine wildlife by MPWC don't exist, or they prefer to dismiss the findings of the evidence presented and demand more studies, advocating that wildlife within the sanctuary be put at risk to conduct such studies. NOAA has reviewed evidence of MPWC disturbance impacts from around the United States, including the states of California and Washington, and has concluded that the nature of harmful MPWC impacts upon seabirds and marine mammals is consistent across the country.

In several assessments of MPWC impacts upon protected water areas around the United States between 1994 and 2004, the National Park Service found that MPWC can operate closer to shore at high speeds and make quicker turns than other types of motorized vessels. MPWC have a disproportional thrust capability and horsepower to vessel length and/or weight, in some cases four times that of conventional vessels. Wildlife impacts from MPWC disturbance can include interruption of normal activity and alarm or flight; avoidance and displacement, loss of habitat use, decreased reproductivity success, interference with movement, direct mortality, interference with courtship, alteration of behavior, change in community structure and nest abandonment (U.S. Dept. of Interior, 1998). As a result of these findings and public testimony nationwide, the National Park Service concluded that MPWC use is inappropriate in most areas of the National Park System (including the Golden Gate National Recreational Area adjacent to Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary) and implemented regulations broadly prohibiting their use in 2000.

Research indicates that impacts associated with MPWC tend to be locally concentrated, producing effects that are more geographically limited yet potentially more severe than motorboat use, due to repeated disruptions to wildlife and an accumulation of impacts in a shorter period of time (Snow, 1989). MPWC are generally of smaller size, with a shallower draft (4 to 9 inches) than most other kinds of motorized watercraft. The smaller size and shallower draft of MPWC means they are more maneuverable, operable closer to shore and in shallower waters than other types of motorized watercraft (U.S. Dept. of Interior, 1998). These characteristics greatly increase the potential for MPWC to disturb fragile nearshore habitats and organisms.

Research in Florida found that MPWC cause wildlife to flush at greater distances and trigger more negative behavioral responses than automobiles, all-terrain vehicles, pedestrians, and motorboats. This was partially attributed by the scientists to a common operational profile of MPWC in which they accelerate and decelerate repeatedly and unpredictably and travel at high speed directly toward shore. By comparison, conventional motor boats generally slow down as they approach shore (Rodgers and Smith, 1997). A study of harbor seal reactions to vessel disturbance in San Francisco Bay between 1998 and 2001 concluded that watercraft exhibiting sudden speed and directional changes were much more likely to flush seals than vessels passing at a steady speed and constant course (Green and Grigg, 2001). Scientific research also indicates that even at slower speeds, MPWC pose a significantly stronger source of disturbance to birds than conventional motorboats. Levels of disturbance are further increased when MPWC are operated at high speeds or outside of established boating channels (Burger, 1998). Research in the Imperial National Wildlife Refuge directly attributed declining nesting success of grebes, coots, and moorhens to the noise and physical intrusion of MPWC (Snow, 1989).

jet ski in surf, bird in foregroundNumerous shoreline roost sites exist within the sanctuary and research has shown that human disturbance at bird roost sites can force birds to completely abandon an area. Published evidence strongly suggests that estuarine birds may be seriously affected by even occasional disturbance during key parts of their feeding cycle, and when flushed from feeding areas, such as eelgrass beds, will usually abandon the area until the next tidal cycle (Kelly, 1997). Seabirds such as common murres and sooty shearwaters often form large aggregations on the surface waters of the sanctuary. Feeding aggregations of sooty shearwaters can often number in the thousands and cover significant offshore areas. These feeding flocks are ephemeral in nature and their movement is dictated by the availability of their prey. These seabirds are especially susceptible during these critical periods and disturbance could have negative impacts on them. Repeated disturbance of seabirds by MPWC in quiet estuarine areas of the Gulf of the Farallones National Marine Sanctuary led to a complete prohibition of MPWC operations in that sanctuary. MPWC operations would pose the same risk to birds in Elkhorn Slough, a critical estuary within MBNMS.

Researchers note that MPWC may be disruptive to marine mammals because MPWC change speed and direction frequently, are unpredictable, and may transit the same area repeatedly in a short period of time. In addition, because MPWC do not produce low-frequency long distance sounds underwater, they do not signal surfacing mammals or birds of approaching danger until they are very close to them (Gentry, 1996; Osborne, 1996). Acoustics research conducted in Sarasota Bay, Florida (Miksis-Olds, 2006) showed a marked difference in manatee responses to MPWC sound signatures compared to sound signatures from other types of vessels. All manatees in the study group exhibited acute panic responses to MPWC, except for one animal, which was deaf. Possible disturbance effects of MPWC on marine mammals in MBNMS could include shifts in activity patterns and site abandonment by harbor seals and Steller sea lions; site abandonment by harbor porpoise; injuries from collisions; and evasion behavior by whales (Gentry, 1996; Richardson et al., 1995).

MPWC operation poses particular risk to sensitive estuarine and stillwater areas within the sanctuary, such as Elkhorn Slough. Research in Florida shallow water areas indicates that MPWC can increase turbidity and may redistribute benthic invertebrates, and that such impacts may be prolonged as a result of repeated use by multiple machines in a limited area. That research has also shown that MPWC can increase local erosion rates by launching and beaching repeatedly in the same locations (Snow, 1989). Past research in the Everglades National Park indicated that fishing success dropped to zero when fishing occurred in the same waters used by MPWC.

Who enforces the MPWC regulations in the sanctuary?

The NOAA Office of Law Enforcement has primary responsibility for enforcing all sanctuary regulations and has agreements with the U.S. Coast Guard, the California Department of Fish and Game, the California Department of Parks and Recreation, and other enforcement agencies to assist with that enforcement.

If I were ticketed for operating my MPWC outside of the prescribed zones, what could the fine be?

jet ski in surf, bird in foregroundFor first-time minor or technical violations of sanctuary prohibitions, NOAA has created a Summary Settlement system whereby a person may be issued a ticket to pay a reduced fine and close the case. This program is designed to give people charged with less egregious violations the opportunity to "summarily" settle a case for a lower penalty than is recommended through the NOAA penalty policy (which considers all facts in a case). The Summary Settlement explanation sheet provided to all recipients states that the Summary Settlement amount stated on the ticket is generally 50% or less of the amount that would be assessed through NOAA's standard Penalty Policy (absent aggravating or mitigating circumstances). Recipients are not required to pay the Summary Settlement. To download the Summary Settlement Penalty Table that includes a Summary Settlement amount for MPWC violations, click here (56K PDF*).

If a Summary Settlement offer is declined by the recipient or the case involves more than minor or technical violations, the matter is then handled under the standard NOAA Penalty Policy procedures, and all the facts of the case are considered in determing the penalty amount—including the level of culpability of the violator. To download NOAA's Penalty Policy, click here (414KB PDF*).

I heard that NOAA threatened to charge a $140,000 fine for an MPWC violation in the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary. Is that true?

No. Though the National Marine Sanctuaries Act specifies a "maximum" penalty limit of $140,000 per day, such maximum penalties are reserved for only the most serious and egregious cases, such as large oil spills or intentional and large-scale destruction of habitat—not simple MPWC zone violations.
Reviewed: April 11, 2024
Web Site Owner: National Ocean Service

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