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Noisy, dangerous and intrusive – should jet skis be banned in Port Stephens?

By Ewa Meyer, EcoUpdate Editor

In and around Nelson Bay this summer, there seemed to be more ‘Personal Water Craft’ (aka Jet Skis) on the water than ever before – but it was the behaviour of a small minority of these that coincided with increasing numbers of complaints from visitors and residents alike. Complaints included excessive speeds, excessive noise, irregular riding, approaching too close to paddle-boarders, dive boats and other waterway users, harassing of marine wildlife especially dolphins and even coming onto crowded shorelines. It is uncertain what type of vessel caused the fatal injury of a sea turtle washed up on Bagnalls Beach, but the incident reinforced the call for speed limits on all private recreational vessels in the Bay. Yes we were upset about the dead turtle – but should we be waiting for another incident such as serious injury to a swimmer or diver before safety risks are adequately addressed.

In many places around Australia, boating and jet skiing activities are not compatible with those seeking a less intrusive water-based hobby or a quiet family holiday on the beach. The majority of recreational vessel owners are considerate and careful, leaving a small minority of thrill seekers on speed boats or jet skis who do not have any regard of their impact on others. 

But should the fact that only a minority are misbehaving be a reason not to demand some changes to maritime regulations?

Tighter regulations – or stricter enforcement?

The NSW Waterways Safe-Speed website states that there are no speed limits on most waterways in NSW and that speed should be limited to what the boat user considers ‘safe’.1

There are regulations for recreational vessels some of which are intended to make them acceptable in shared spaces with other water-based activities. For instance, in Port Stephens, jet skis are permitted in most areas except marine sanctuary zones and they are to remain 200 metres from the shore or beach. A police spokesperson said that the Port’s speed zones were for all water vessels and there were no specific speed restriction zones for jet skis.

Laws limit speed on all our public roads for the safety of all road users, why is this not the case on our public waterways? Acting Inspector Steve Towers from Victoria’s water police was reported in The Age calling them 400kg ‘high-speed missiles’ 2 capable of travelling at more than 100kph. Like on the road, anything in the path of something nearly half the weight of a small car, travelling at that speed and without brakes would be at grave risk.

So they tell you you must always travel at a safe speed (according to your own judgment and experience) but ‘if you drive at a speed that’s not safe for the conditions, your licence can be cancelled and your vessel can be taken away.’ In other words, ‘safe’ is a subjective decision!

When it comes to keeping a safe distance from marine animals, there are safety regulations that cover all types of water craft … ‘All vessels must keep a minimum distance and reduce speed when near marine mammals, powerboats, sailing boats and paddle craft must keep a minimum distance of 100m from whales or 300m if there is a calf – and 50m from dolphins, or 150m if there is a calf. All personal watercraft (PWC) users must keep a minimum distance of 300m from whales, dolphins and dugongs.’ 3

Maritime’s Acting Manager, Waterways Operations in the Hunter, Paul Hearfield said ‘there’s a perception that PWC riders are bad all the time, and we know that’s not the case. On the whole, they’re well-behaved. There’s definitely a low percentage who choose not to follow the rules and regulations, but they’re dealt with when they’re identified.’

Records show that between 2008 and 2018, despite comprising only 7% of vessels, jet skis were involved in 17% of major injury incidents. Over the second weekend in January 2022, Transport for NSW – Maritime carried out Operation Ride Safe. From Lake Macquarie to Port Macquarie, 18 field staff in 12 vessels were on the water, discussing safety and compliance with PWC users.

So, what is the answer?

EcoNetwork Port Stephens president and Marine Parks Association vice-president, Iain Watt, believes that one option would be to introduce designated fast boat channels or transit lanes. For instance, between the heads and particular destinations. More consistent speed limits for all vessels might reduce risks to people, property and marine wildlife. Commercial vessels are currently limited to 25 knots yet there are no speed limits for recreational boats and jet skis.  A 4 knot zone around busy beaches like Bagnalls and Shoal Bay would be a good idea to ensure safety for all.

Any regulations to be addressed should include recreational boats especially speed boats and not focus solely on jet skis. Iain would also support the introduction of designated areas for jet skis to ‘play in.’

The new Councillor for East Ward, Leah Anderson, responded swiftly to EcoNetwork’s request for comments on this issue. 

  • What is the new Council’s perspective and what do you plan to do?  I am not yet sure on what the new Council’s perspective is, so I plan to organise some meetings to see how we can play a role, (as covered in my response below). 
  • What avenues do we the residents have to address the problem? The Council staff advised me the avenues for residents are to contact Transport for NSW (rules for personal watercraft), Maritime and the Water Police.

I have been approached by a few people over the past 2 weeks since commencing my new role as East Ward Councillor, on the issue of Jet Skis. Mostly people opposed to them being able to be in the vicinity of popular swimming spots (for example, Fly Point).

I have also been approached by a group of Jet Ski owners, who described to me how they sensibly ride their Jet Skis, and where they ride them, and are fearful of port wide bans being put in place, because of the % of the population (perhaps a good percentage of visitors?) who do not care or show any respect to marine life or other people. 

My provisional view is that an outright ban would be a disproportionate response and in any case very difficult to achieve, requiring State government decisions – this is not a matter Council can control.  I do believe however that Council can play a leadership role in advocating for change.  

I have this on my agenda to discuss with fellow councillors. My thoughts are along the lines of Council potentially considering bans at popular swimming locations (after community consultation), an extensive education program, and advocating for change via Transport for NSW (rules for personal watercraft), Maritime and the Water Police, just as a starting point.

I hope this gives you some relief knowing that I am listening to our community, and this issue is certainly on my radar. Cr Leah Anderson, 23 January 2022.

Two locals who spend more time on the Bay’s waters than almost anyone  are Frank Future from Marine Parks Association and Imagine Cruises, and John ‘Stinker’ Clarke, the Bay’s famous fishing expert and boatie. They advocate for lower speed limits and provided three options for consideration:

  • reduce the speed of jet skis
  • allocate an area in the Port for their activities
  • ban them altogether.

Mr Clarke has encouraged our Port community to get involved: ‘this campaign will only achieve results if the people of Port Stephens get behind it. They can no longer rely on a select few to do all the lobbying. Frank and I are not going to change things, only an army of support will achieve change.’ 4

Local jet ski owners have also been vocal and believe there is much misinformation going around. Writing to the Port Stephens Examiner, a local jet ski owner says ‘the majority of riders are responsible and people seem to just focus on the negative. Jet skis do not have any sort of exposed propeller that can harm marine life, especially dolphins. Boats have fast rotating blades.’

Another jet ski and boat owner supported the view that ‘they are not loud, they are not dirty in fact most operate a closed cooling system unlike a two stroke boat motor they do not expel oil into the water, they are not dangerous operating a concealed impellor which cannot contact marine life or a person in the water. He further noted that ‘jet-skiing is a family oriented hobby, particularly with the increased production of the three seater PWC (personal watercraft) targeted at families.’

There is no doubt that marine mammals are injured or killed by exposed boat propellers which jet skis don’t have, but it is the impact of a hard and heavy hull, especially at high speed, that is also dangerous in an accident. Sound travels differently underwater and it is more difficult for animals to assess where the fast approaching noise is coming from and take evasive action.

Will Port Stephens become a magnet for jet skiers?

A TfNSW spokesperson said that ‘across NSW there was a 92% increase in the number of licences from 2019-2020. With another 16% increase in the past 12 months.’

But did you know that it is the Nelson Bay areas that have more than double the state average of jet ski licences? According to Maritime NSW, jet ski registrations comprise 7% of the State’s total recreational boating licences as of 1 January 2022. Yet around Nelson Bay, Salt Ash, Karuah, Hawks Nest (postcodes 2310 – 2319, 2324), the percentage of registrations increased by over double that at 16%.5

With other waterways like Sydney Harbour and tributaries of the Lane Cove and Parramatta rivers, Jervis Bay and the Tweed implementing restrictions around speed and noise, Port Stephens risks becoming a magnet for this small inconsiderate minority who don’t care about their impact on others. As waterways become busier, the risks become greater and accidents more frequent including to the person in charge of the speed boat or jet ski.

The Safer People factsheet produced by the Maritime Enhanced Enforcement Program 2017-2020 found in their 2017 survey that ‘Over 85% of people were less likely to visit an area if PWC were present.’ 6

If Port Stephens is becoming such a drawcard for jet skiers (a small proportion of visitors) it may put off the holiday makers (much larger proportion) that come here for a quiet weekend to snorkel or watch dolphins or lie on the beach. They may go somewhere where jet skis are not so prolific, potentially doing our tourism industry more harm than good.

So, what about our other visitors?

It doesn’t seem right that the enjoyment of a few adversely impacts so many other people and we haven’t even touched on the possible long-term impacts on our local marine life, the endangered Beach stone-curlew and other shorebirds. With the ever increasing number of jet skis in Nelson Bay, Shoal Bay, Fingal Bay, Boat Harbour – noise pollution is a common complaint from those not just on or near the water. From the crack of dawn right through the day until dusk especially in the summer months, their noise can be heard from inside holiday apartments, houses and flats, in back gardens as well as by those looking to enjoy the serenity when walking and exploring our beautiful coastal Tomaree National Park.

In fact, it was a visitor to the bay who was so shocked at the number of jet skis near dolphin pods that she started the change.org e-petition in 2021 named ‘Ban jet skis at Nelson Bay.’ ‘I saw Dolphin Watching crew on approved larger boats have to threaten to call the Water Police to deter the jet skiers from hassling the dolphins.’ Other observers have remarked:

  • ‘I see jet skis speeding close to the shore in Corlette regularly. The danger to swimmers and wildlife is extreme.’
  • The noise, also, is sickening! As a racing yachtsman, I’m sick of them hooning around our start line.’
  • ‘It’s not the jet skis themselves but the jerks who are at their controls.’
  • ‘I am tried of watching jet skis only observe jet ski use regulations when Maritime is present. As soon as Maritime leaves they are back to their rule breaking behaviour.
  • ‘They crowd out swimmers from Little Beach and other NE sheltered beaches.’ 
  • ‘In the 2 years we have lived here after 10 years of holidaying here, I have been surprised and dismayed by the increasing number of jet skis whizzing up and down the entire length of the bay – all the way from Soldiers Point to Shoal Bay.’
  • ‘I saw what crazy stunts young jet ski drivers were doing on Jimmy’s beach during the holiday.’

So, is this a case of the actions of a few jet-skiers giving all of them a bad name?  Or is it an activity that is simply not compatible with any others?

As always, it’s never one thing – it’s these and more!

What can residents and visitors do?

  • Report erratic or illegal behaviour immediately to NSW Maritime on 13 12 36. State the time of the incident and vessel registration.
  • Submit a comment, complaint or compliment to NSW Maritime on a Waterways issue using their online form here.
  • Write to the State Member for Port Stephens Kate Washington MP ElectorateOffice.PortStephens@parliament.nsw.gov.au or phone 02 4987 4455.
  • EcoNetwork does not endorse an outright ban but some readers may want to take this option and sign the change.org epetition Ban jet skis Nelson Bay.’

References

  1. NSW waterways safety and rules on safe speed
  2. Jet-skis ‘high-speed missiles’ in need of brakes, say police
  3. Port Stephens Examiner – 10 Jan 2020 – Jet ski users in Maritime’s sights, as Operation Ride Safe held on Hunter waters
  4. Port Stephens Examiner – 11 March 2020 – Lobbyists Frank Future and John ‘Stinker’ Clarke weigh in to the great Port Stephens jet ski debate
  5. NSW Boat Registrations and Licences
  6. Maritime Enhanced Enforcement Program 2017-2020
  7. Jet Ski from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
  8. NSW Transport Roads and Maritime Services – Map 7a Port Stephens Lower Myall River Area
  9. Port Stephens–Great Lakes Marine Park zones
  10. NSW Transport Roads and Maritime Services – Personal Watercraft Handbook