Congressmen seek restrictions for use of personal watercraft

Personal watercraft, such as Jet Skis, would be banned from parts of coastal waters under legislation proposed in Congress.

“As a colleague of mine said, we shouldn’t let Yamaha or Polaris dictate policy,” said Bruce Vento, R-MN, referring to two well-known personal watercraft manufacturers.

Legislation co-sponsored by Reps. Vento, Jim Saxton, R-N., and Wayne Gilchrest, R-MD, would ban personal watercraft from coastal waters — oceans, Great Lakes and the Gulf of Mexico — that are:

  • Designated “sensitive areas” under the Coastal Zone Management Act of 1972.

  • Closer than 200 feet from the shoreline.

  • In a designated right-of-way or navigation channel.

The bill would also ban people from using personal watercraft in a way that “injures, harasses, or disturbs wading, roosting or nesting birds or marine mammals.”

In addition, it would establish guidelines that would set a minimum age of 16, require state registration and compel operators to complete a training program for safety and conservation.

Saxton said the legislation was necessary because personal watercraft are involved in a disproportionate share of boating accidents and pose a hazard to the environment.

“These things dump a gallon of oil per hour,” Vento said. “They destroy flora and fauna.”

Claude Picard, general manager of the watercraft division at Polaris Industries Inc. of Minneapolis, which manufactures personal watercraft, said the company supports some elements of the bill, such as the minimum age requirement and the mandatory training provision.

“Where we are a little less comfortable is the ban on sensitive areas. That is a very vague term,” Picard said. And the 200-foot restriction “makes sense in some areas, but in some areas it’s excessive. It has to be applied the same for all motor boats.”

Picard said personal watercraft are no more polluting or dangerous than most motor boats. One problem he acknowledged was with inexperienced operators, where “there may have been some excess.”

A coalition of environmental groups appeared with Vento and Saxton to endorse the legislation.

“The legislation sponsored by Representatives Saxton, Gilchrest and Vento will begin to remove these polluting watercraft from sensitive areas along our coastline,” said Erich Pica, economic policy associate of Friends of the Earth. “This bill will protect unique aquatic habitats for birds, mammals and other marine life, as well as important recreational and commercial areas.”

Two groups sue government over Great Lakes pollution standards

Environmental groups say they’re tired of waiting for the EPA to finish long-past-due standards intended to make pollution discharge limits comparable in every Great Lakes state.

Delayed by lawsuits, slow state action and the sheer magnitude of the task, standards implementing the Great Lakes Water Quality Initiative are about a year and a half late. Two organizations filed suit in November hoping to get a federal court to prod the EPA to speed up its work.

“This has just gone on too long,” said Beverly McClellan, at attorney with the Lake Michigan Federation, which filed the suit along with the National Wildlife Federation. “People have a right to enjoy the Great Lakes and eat fish without having to worry about their health or children’s health.”

The Great Lakes initiative was the first effort by states to adopt uniform rules for a shared waterbody. It was supposed to eliminate major differences in allowable pollution from one part of the Great Lakes basin to another, yet do it in a way that gave the states some flexibility in how they regulated the factories, power plants and sewage treatment plants within their own borders.

The effort was controversial from the start, as governors of the eight affected states and manufacturers, particularly auto companies, warned that extra costs to meet a joint pollution standard might drive business to other regions.

The agency had a court-imposed deadline of May 1998 for ruling on whether each state’s plan complied with the federal guideline; states with plans found to be insufficiently protective of the waterways would have a federal standard issued.

Of the eight Great Lakes states, the EPA has said it completed reviews of plans submitted by Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio and Pennsylvania, and is still examining plans from Illinois, New York and Wisconsin.

Conservative takes Chafee’s seat on environment committee

Sen. Bob Smith will be the chair of the Environment and Public Works Committee, taking the place of John Chafee of Rhode Island who died suddenly in October of congestive heart failure.

Overall, the conservative Smith — a New Hampshire Republican who briefly broke with a party he thinks has grown too moderate and accommodating — is more pro-business and anti-government than Chafee.

But Smith is also from New England, a region with little land to spare and industries such as fishing and tourism that are heavily dependent on a clean environment.

That tends to make even anti-government conservatives more open to environmental protection than they might be in regions where the right of private property owners to be free of government intervention is a hot issue.

Given that, Smith’s colleagues, and some environmentalists, are postponing judgment on whether he’ll differ dramatically from Chafee in substance and style.

“He’s proud of his conservative credentials, but he worked under the tutelage of Sen. Chafee and has tremendous respect for his views,” said Sen. John Warner, R-VA, a high-ranking committee member who was a close friend of Chafee’s.

The League of Conservation Voters has given Smith a lifetime voting rating of 36 percent, well below Chafee’s score of 70 percent but higher than all the other Republicans on the committee. In many cases, Smith’s pro-environment votes were votes for fiscal conservatism. He scored points, for instance, for backing limited assistance to small and medium livestock farms, and for voting against sugar and grazing subsidies.

“I’m not an environmental extremist, that’s for darn sure,” Smith said. “But I think there has to be a balance between the environment and reasonable growth and opportunity. I don’t believe people should violate the pollution laws of our country.”

Number of overfished species up

The number of overfished species increased this year from 90 to 98, the Commerce Department’s National Marine Fisheries Service said in its annual report to Congress.

The NMFS said five species are nearing an overfished condition, while 127 species are not overfished. The condition of another 674 species is not known. Fishery managers removed 10 species from the overfished list this year but added 18 others. Fishery managers also increased the number of species whose status was unknown from 544 to 674, partly because of a lack of adequate data to satisfy information requirements of the 1996 Sustainable Fisheries Act.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration requires regional fishery councils to prepare plans to end overfishing and rebuild stocks that are classified as overfished.

Lee Crockett, executive director of the Marine Fish Conservation Network, said, “We can no longer stand by, watching these stocks decline while the government does too little to correct the problem.”

Justin LeBlanc of the National Fisheries Institute, a trade association for the commercial fishing industry, said no new restrictions were necessary because management plans put in place by the 1996 law have not had a chance to work.

Worth Noting:

  • Fishing Ban: Scientists at a U.S. Coral Reef Task Force meeting Nov. 2 in the Virgin Islands recommended a fishing ban on 20 percent of U.S. coral reefs by 2020. The scientists said the bans are necessary to preserve fish breeding grounds. About 85 percent of the United States’ 10,540 square miles of coral reefs are in the Pacific Ocean near Hawaii, American Samoa and the Mariana Islands. The call came as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration designated a 16-square-mile area off St. Thomas as the United States’ first marine conservation district in the Caribbean.

  • Trade & the Environment: President Clinton signed an executive order requiring environmental reviews of all major trade agreements. Under the order, government and private experts would produce written assessments of how trade deals would affect the environment. The deal recently signed to bring China into the World Trade Organization would not necessarily be subject to environmental reviews, but as a WTO member, China would have to meet other environmental standards. While some business groups have opposed bringing environmental issues into trade negotiations, Barry Polsky of the American Forest & Paper Association said yesterday that members “were confident they could pass any environmental tests linked to future trade agreements.”

  • Save the Salmon: A federal proposal to classify Maine’s wild Atlantic salmon as an endangered species became official in November when it was published in the Federal Register. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service say the eight Maine rivers specified in the plan contain the last “self-sustaining” wild runs of Atlantic salmon in the United States. Their proposal includes several restrictions on Maine’s $60 million-a-year aquaculture industry, limits on pesticide use by the blueberry and forest industries, and controls on other activities that could discharge toxic material or sediment into the rivers.