Guest Spot: Jet Skis and water quality in the Peconic Bay

I wouldn’t call myself a tree hugger, though I once came close to getting arrested when attempting to block the Southold Town Highway Department from cutting down a neighbor’s maple — but that’s another story. Usually I am more moderate in my actions, though I am concerned about the well-being of the world I inhabit.

So when word came out that a Jet Ski tour business was coming to Greenport, I reacted with dismay. Why should I be concerned, you might wonder. After all, our beautiful Peconic Bay is already under siege by all sorts of motorized craft, leaking oil and gas onto the fishes. There is nothing new about that and usually the semi-diurnal flush of the tides dissipates these pollutants so that their concentrated effect is minimized.

Make no mistake, every 4-stroke motor or diesel engine leaves a trail of pollutants either in the air or in the water. If you want proof of that, go for a swim off Sandy Beach at the entrance to Sterling Harbor. Power boats pass in and out of there on a regular basis. The water smells of gas and is as oily as a breakfast in a “greasy spoon.”

But Jet Skis, or as they are called personal water craft, are a cat of a different breed. They have a reputation, correctly so, of being the most polluting of motor vessels on the water. Before government emissions standards were enacted in about 2004, every 2-stroke personal water craft dumped about 30 percent of its oil/gas mix into the water. So a tank full of 10 gallons of fuel would leave at least 3 gallons in the water.

And that is not good news for the copepods and plankton living in the water. These microscopic organisms, which never get any credit, are what make Peconic Bay a viable nursery for fish and bivalves. These plankton absorb all the pollutants and suffer phototoxicity and other forms of morbidity. The fish and the oysters that depend on these critters for their survival suffer as a result. It’s called the food chain, and when the bottom of the food chain is poisoned everything else suffers, including us.

Today’s Jet Skis are better engineered, less toxic, thanks to all those who lobbied long and hard against nonexistent regulations. Now, these Jet Skis leave only about a gallon and a quarter of fuel in the water for a 10-gallon trip. Better, but far from acceptable.

As well as all the gas left in the water, Jet Skis also have a heck of a reputation concerning noise; they produce an incredible amount of noise, even with the newer technologies. Make no mistake: Noise is a problem both for the humans and for the fish. Sound travels about four times faster in the water than in the air, so it is moving farther and the fish suffer as a result of this noise with damage to their internal organs.

Now why, you may ask, do we care so much about the fish? Just ask any of the legions of fishermen and fisherwomen, both recreational and commercial. Ask the folks who make their living in the scallop fishery, or in the whelk fishery, or the fly fishing guides, or the oyster farmers, if any of this matters to them. And while we are at it, ask the paddle boarders, and the kayakers, and the sailors, and the swimmers, all of whom enjoy our bay. Ask them what they think.

Wait, there’s even more. Because they are so small and maneuverable, Jet Skis can creep into shallow marsh areas where an ordinary boat can’t go, intruding on the tranquility of wildlife — birds, mammals, estuarine creatures — that pretty much like to be left alone and thrive when they are.

Get the drift?

The proposed Jet Ski business coming to Greenport gives the community an opportunity to have a conversation about where we, as stewards of Peconic Bay, want to go. Mr. Evan Hoffman, the brains behind the outfit, is resident of East Hampton, that tony village on the South Fork. We all know there are more visitors and discretionary dollars there, so why does Mr. Hoffman choose Greenport?

It’s not because we are cute, or that he loves us. He basically has no choice because East Hampton prohibited the use of Jet Skis operating closer than 1,500 feet from the shoreline, following up on a law passed by Republican Gov. George Pataki that allowed local municipalities to ban their use. Oh, and did I mention that most national parks prohibit their use as well?

I’m a small businessman and I applaud the crazy courage that it takes to start a small business. So this is not about that. It is about our responsibility to protect our beautiful bay. It is time for the Greenport Village and Southold Town boards to address the use of Jet Skis and to make a reasoned decision based on all the available information. It is time to rule on the use of Jet Skis, as many many other waterfront municipalities have already done.

Capt. David Berson is co-owner with Andrew Rowsom of Glory, the only Coast Guard-certified solar-charged electric boat in the United States.