After seven years of soul-searching, federal officials on Thursday agreed to allow tow-in surfing at California’s most famous big-wave riding spot, known as Mavericks, as part of a major expansion of federal rules governing three marine sanctuaries.
The revised rules ban chumming for great white sharks around San Francisco’s Farallon Islands for thrill-seeking divers in cages and photo-snapping tourists — rules that have long been enforced closer to shore in waters colloquially known as the Bloody Triangle for their history of shark attacks.
The new management plan also expands the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary by 775 square miles to offer permanent protection for the Davidson Seamount, an enormous undersea mountain about 70 miles off Big Sur that is full of sea life found nowhere else on Earth.
These plans will also prohibit ocean cruise liners from dumping partially treated sewage and other wastewater into the protected waters of the Monterey Bay, Gulf of the Farallones and Cordell Bank national marine sanctuaries.“These areas are essentially underwater Yosemites off our coast,” said William J. Douros, western regional director of the National Marine Sanctuaries program. Just like national parks on land, he said, the sanctuaries are meant to preserve nature and not disturb wildlife.
As for baiting sharks to lure them closer to thrill-seekers, Douros said: “We just think it was a bad idea for white sharks to associate humans with blood in the water.”
Tourist boats will have to remain at least 50 feet from sharks feeding on elephant seals around the Farallones.
The new rules, which will take effect in mid-March, also forbid abandoning boats, introducing invasive species, and undersea mining and dumping in these sanctuaries, which were initially established to protect waters from offshore oil and gas drilling. A similar rewrite and toughening of rules is in the works for the national marine sanctuary that surrounds the Santa Barbara Channel Islands.
One of the most contentious issues has been the use of personalized watercraft at big-wave surf spots along California’s Central Coast. These noisy, polluting vehicles will be banned at popular spots such as Steamer Lane in Santa Cruz, Ghost Trees off Pebble Beach and the Moss Landing jetty in Monterey Bay. Exceptions will be made for lifeguards and others rescuing troubled surfers.
But sanctuary officials fashioned a compromise for big-wave riders — many of whom fly in from around the globe on short notice — who match their skills against giant waves that crash onto Northern California’s Pillar Point, known as Mavericks.
The waves get so big and move so fast that it is difficult, and at times impossible, for surfers to paddle into position to catch them. Surfing magazines used to delight in publishing pictures of brave or foolish surfers being overtaken by these giants and tossed around like helpless rag dolls.
Tow-in surfing, invented in Hawaii, quickly found a niche at Mavericks, launching a bitter debate between the new breed of enthusiasts and traditional paddlers who objected to the watercrafts’ noisy whine, contrails of exhaust and wake chopping up the surf. That debate spilled into public hearings during the years that sanctuary managers wrestled with a potential ban on the motorized craft.
In this new sport, surfers standing on boards equipped with foot straps are towed and slung into position at 30 mph or more, making it possible to ride the fast-moving waves. Surfing these monstrous waves has turned into a spectator sport, causing problems for landowners when hundreds and sometimes thousands of people show up on big-wave days to watch from shore.
The Monterey Bay sanctuary largely banned such motorized personal watercraft in 1992 to avoid disturbing sea otters, seabirds and other wildlife. Although the ban survived a federal lawsuit from manufacturers, it quickly became outdated when wave riders began using larger, multiseat watercraft to tow surfers instead of the smaller, one- or two-person vehicles defined in the original rules.
The new rules expand the definition of motorized personal watercraft to ban the larger vehicles everywhere but outside the mouth of four harbors within the sanctuary and at Mavericks. There, they can be used for tow-in surfing only during the few days in December, January and February when the National Weather Service issues high surf advisories. A cliff-top viewing area at Mavericks includes a county park that can accommodate large crowds with parking, bathrooms and other facilities.
“It’s a compromise to be sure,” Douros said. “We spent a lot of time working with surfers, scuba divers, fishermen and others trying to balance multiple uses as well as protecting natural resources.”
Surfrider Foundation, which advocates for ocean protections and surfers’ rights, has wrestled with this issue, with dissent even among factions of its membership.
“We feel this is a decent balance between use and marine protection,” said Chad Nelsen, the foundation’s environmental director.