PWC advocates seek to overturn Biscayne ban


National Park Service maintains the craft are incompatible with the character of the bay

National Park Service maintains the craft are incompatible with the character of the bay

Danny Nicola says it’s a matter of fairness. He is convinced that the public record shows that PWC have been banned from Miami’s BiscayneNational Park not for any scientifically supportable environmental reason, but because of bias against them.

“Personal watercraft are safer, cleaner and quieter than the average craft on the waterways,” says Nicola, a Miami construction worker and PWC owner. “Just because I can’t afford a $20,000 boat doesn’t mean I shouldn’t be allowed to boat in the park.” He says no study has been done to justify excluding PWC from the 173,000-acre park, which is mostly water. “This ban makes absolutely no sense,” he says.

Speaking at a Feb. 16 press conference launching a campaign to repeal the ban, Nicola said he had used his Jet Ski twice in a year. “I have to go down to the Keys if I want to ride. That’s four hours’ total travel time.”

Marco Rueda, owner of a Miami dealership that sells PWC, motorcycles and all-terrain vehicles, said his PWC sales plummeted from around 800 to 70 to 80 units a year after the 2000 ban. “The personal watercraft showroom closed, repairmen were laid off and business shrunk,” he said. Rueda’s woes resonate with dealers in many parts of the country where the National Park Service has banned PWC.

Maureen Healey, executive director of the Personal Watercraft Industry Association, released an economic impact study showing that the PWC ban at many national parks has cost the industry an estimated $1.3 billion in sales and caused a direct and indirect economic impact resulting in the loss of 3,300 jobs.

Healey said the BOAT Biscayne Coalition has filed a petition with the Department of Interior requesting a re-evaluation of the ban. The organization, which has collected 1,000 electronic signatures in an online petition drive plus 2,000 signatures from an earlier campaign, wants the park service to undertake an environmental assessment of PWC use to see what impacts their reintroduction would have on the BiscayneNational Park. If study results warrant it, the petitioners want the ban lifted and PWC treated like other boats, which are permitted on park waters. Ten national seashore, lakeshore and recreation areas have reinstated PWC with restrictions after concluding they were not environmental menaces. No parks have done so and the park service, as a matter of national policy, has said it doesn’t want PWC in parks because they are incompatible with the reasonably tranquil character people expect of a national park.

The typical way these watercraft are used — buzzing back and forth or around in circles instead of actually going somewhere — bother wildlife and spoil the public’s enjoyment of the park, says BiscayneNational Park superintendent Mark Lewis. PWC also are shoal enough that they can — and often do — run at high speeds into areas where other boats can’t go, and flush wildlife that find habitat there, he said.

Healey said a Freedom of Information request about the decision to keep PWC out of the Miami park suggested that there “was not a shred of scientific justification or evidence” for the ban, just a “unilateral decision made in Washington,” Healey says. “We are not asking for any special favors. We are asking the park superintendent to move ahead with a study and let it decide the fate of personal watercraft in BiscayneNational Park.”

PWC advocates maintain that the watercraft and the way they are used have changed over the years with the advent of family-sized three-seaters that ride like small boats, and advanced engine technology — 4-strokes, direct-injection 2-strokes, and engines with catalytically scrubbed exhaust. Healey says engines are 90-percent cleaner and 70-percent quieter than they used to be, and 75 percent of sales now are three-seaters, which don’t buzz around like the small, pesky stand-up models. She notes, too, that the average buyer today is 41 years old and married, and 69 percent of buyers have owned a boat before.

These developments, along with better education and tougher laws against reckless operation, have addressed most of the complaints against PWC, she said.

Lewis says the park service considers PWC in parks a national issue, not one particular to the Biscayne park. He said the park service in Washington is taking the coalition’s petition under advisement, but likely will consider it in reference to all parks and not just Biscayne.

He is skeptical of industry contentions that PWC have become family boats operated much the same as any other boat. He says PWC ad campaigns belie that. “They are trying to sell these [craft] to the park service as a family boat,” he said. “They are selling them to the public as fast, exciting, thrill machines.” He says that is the way they are designed to be used, and that is the way most people use them.

“I would be surprised if in any of their ads you see a family of three with fishing poles riding on one of these,” he said.

Healey says speedboats, fishing boats and even barges are allowed in the park. “They are all out there traveling Biscayne’s waters,” she said. “What you will not see is a personal watercraft.” She insists it’s not fair.