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Jet skis, parasail boats have Hawaii in an uproar

The islands are abuzz, and it doesn't sound like music. At least not to many of those who count on Hawaii's world-famous beaches for some peace and quiet.

The buzzing is coming from jet skis and parasail boats that have become quite the rage in water sports here. The problem, locals say, is that noisy motors and poorly supervised ``thrill craft'' are scaring off swimmers and snorklers, and perhaps more important - whales. Hotly contested proposals to ban such activity from Hawaii's beaches are under consideration by state officials.

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There is some question of whether the complaints hold water, but the state's main concern is that it is losing control of its beaches and waterfronts - one of Hawaii's greatest attractions. In short, the growing contingent of visiting jet-skiing, sailboarding wave lovers may be discouraging those who want to swim and whale-watch. Riders stand, kneel, or sit on the snowmobile-like jet skis that run on gasoline engines. Pulling in almost $5 billion in 1987, Hawaii's tourist industry is an economic pillar for the state, which otherwise relies on sugar and pineapples for income.

``A lot of tourists and locals find them obnoxious and loud,'' says Lili Hagen of the Pacific Whale Foundation in Maui. And although opinions vary on how much the noise affects marine life behavior, ``what it is about a thrill craft that does bother the whales is that it changes course quickly and unexpectedly.''

Noisy motors may be pushing humpback whales farther from Maui's western shore into less protected waters, Ms. Hagen says. Humpbacks migrate to Hawaii to breed.

The North Pacific humpback herd, which numbered about 15,000 in 1900, is now estimated to have a meager pod of 1,200-1,500 and is on the endangered species list.

Highly sensitive to sound and needing calm, quiet waters to nurture their young, the whales are documented as staying farther off shore than ever before. Reports also say that some of the young whales are not making it back up the coast to Alaska, but the cause is unclear.

There is, however, no hard evidence that ``thrill craft'' activity is actually hurting the whales, says Scott Kraus, a Boston-based right whale specialist. No one has come up with the funding for an in-depth study of this kind, he says.

Interest in keeping state control of the beaches was sparked long before jet skis and motor boats began darting around the islands. But recent wrangling to stop whale hunting and mounting complaints of local disturbances have brought the issue to a head - not to mention a newspaper article that appeared earlier this year describing a jet skier-whale collision. For those who were ready to get rid of the annoying thrill craft anyway, ``that was the straw that broke the camel's back,'' Mark Bechtel of the Maui Cruise Company says.

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Complaints have not, however, gone unopposed. Mr. Bechtel, who takes about 30,000 people whale-watching every year, says the noise may indeed bother the whales, but ``if anything, there might be a few more whales'' this year. The ``thrill craft,'' he says, are not really a problem and should not be banned.

Hawaii's surf and ski shops have a sizable stake in the outcome of this debate as well. Lining the highways of Maui's most popular beaches, such as Keihei or Malia Beach, these small entrepreneurs hawk hundreds of multicolored sails, surfboards, swimsuits, and ski packages to the multitudes who come to the island each year. ``You cannot pass a law that puts people out of business. That's unconstitutional,'' Bechtel says.

Restrictions are not new to Hawaii's beaches. One restriction states that businesses cannot be run on beach property, and in beaches like Hookipa - known as the sailboarding capital of the world - the waves on the right are reserved for surf boards, those on the left for sailboarders and sail boards. Unsuspecting swimmers and snorklers are left to dodge the boards.

The state has also made moves to keep a cap on its waters, placing some restrictions on boats and other motorized craft - most of which have been instituted in recent years. For example, because of their danger to swimmers, jet skiers must stay at least one mile off the coast.

For boaters, many of whom are indignant that their licensed drivers are being lumped in with unsupervised ``thrill craft,'' there is a $25,000 fine if a boat intentionally gets too close to the whales.

Those pushing for the ban are not that popular either, but if the whales disappear, Hagen says, ``We just don't want to find out after the fact that [the thrill craft] was the problem.''

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