When big wave surfers Jeff Martin and Scott Jarrett surfed some early-morning waves off Moss Landing last March, the last thing they expected was to face a fine that could be as high as $140,000.
They also didn't expect to be fighting it six months down the road with an agency they say is corrupt, unscientifically based and out of control.
When they pulled their jet ski out of the water at 9 a.m. March 15, they were given a ticket for $500 by an enforcement officer with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration for using jet skis in an area not approved for them.
The ticket warned that if they chose to fight it, they could be assessed as much as $140,000. They chose to fight.
They will take the fight to Santa Cruz Thursday at 9:15 a.m., when the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary holds a day-long advisory council meeting.
They plan to make their case during a portion of the meeting reserved for business not already on the agenda.
"If they don't do something, they will have another surfer's death on their hands," said Jarrett, 40, who owns a trucking company and has surfed most of his life.
Big wave surfers say they need jet skis to serve as rescue vehicles for the 15 or so days a year when there are big waves. While one partner surfs, the other monitors him and is prepared to haul him out of the water if he is injured.
The day after Martin and Jarrett got their fine, Hawaiian surfer Sion Milosky died after getting pounded by a big wave. There was a jet ski at the scene, but it didn't arrive in time to save him.
In January, Orange County surfer Jacob Trette was knocked unconscious in heavy surf at Maverick's and pulled to shore by an illegal jet ski driver, who saved his life.
His parents have spoken at NOAA meetings in favor of allowing the jet skis, also called personal watercraft, in areas where big waves are being surfed.
The craft are allowed in the Bay in limited areas of Moss Landing, Santa Cruz and Monterey, and two by Maverick's, the famous surfing spot outside Half Moon Bay. They are also allowed at Maverick's during the intense big wave contest.
However, says Jarrett, who lives in Aptos, the buoyed zones don't lead to the big waves, making it impossible to practice for the contest, where they are allowed.
"It's like a death sentence for a surfer. How are you supposed to surf a 50-foot-wave if you haven't been able to practice?"
He says that rather than leading to the big waves, the legal zone in Moss Landing leads to the calm area where sea otters and seals go to get out of the big waves. The approved zone would endanger the animals, which flee the bigger waves.
NOAA attorney Paul Ortiz had no comment on the matter, other than to say that the case was pending review and the agency had a statute of limitations of five years to decide what to do.
"Monterey Bay is the nation’s largest marine sanctuary, stretching 276 miles along the central California coastline from Marin to Cambria and encompassing 5,322 square miles of ocean," according to NOAA's website.
"Designated in 1992, its unique natural resources include the largest kelp forest in U.S.waters, one of North America’s largest underwater canyons, the nation’s most near-shore deep ocean environment, 33 species of marine mammals, 94 species of seabirds, 345 fish species and a multitude of plants and invertebrates."
The ban on personal watercraft was passed as a measure to protect wildlife, the surfers acknowledged; however, kayaks or even boats with the same engines as the jet skis can go wherever they want. Those boats would be even more dangerous to the wildlife, they say.
The smaller craft, like motorcycles compared with trucks, maneuver more easily than larger boats and can avoid mammals.
In the course of a battle with the federal agency, Jarrett and Martin, 36, an electrical engineer, linked up with East Coast fishers and news reporters, alleging all kinds of illegalities by the federal agency.
In a broadcast aired in May called "Something Fishy," Dan Rather showed evidence that corrupt NOAA enforcement officials collected $100 million in fines from fishermen and used the money for cars, yachts and bonuses for prosecutors and NOAA officials. It also paid for international trips by employees. On one of those to Malaysia, prosecutors were accompanied by the judge who ruled in their case.
The show also documented the shredding of documents by the head of the agency as it was about to be investigated.
Congressional hearings also documented the shredding, according to this report in the New York Times.
The pair of surfers say they fear they are seeing the West Coast version of an agency they say has less to do with protecting wildlife than with amassing a treasure chest of fines.