CYPRESS — Its campaign budget was small and its target narrow. And to add to the enigma, the author of the only environmental initiative to capture the hearts and votes of Californians on Tuesday wasn't even an environmentalist, but a Republican assemblywoman from conservative Orange County.
Proposition 132, a modest measure that prohibits fishermen from using gill nets in California waters, passed, with 55.5% of the vote.
All other environmental propositions--sweeping in scope and attracting national attention--were soundly defeated.
The initiative's success stands out in an election that found many voters cautious about the economy, annoyed by the flurry of confusing measures and distrustful of attempts to make the most of save-the-Earth sentiments.
"People keep asking us what our secret was," said Assemblywoman Doris Allen (R-Cypress). "But it's no secret. The people saw it as a good-government issue. There were no taxes in it. People care about marine life, and we kept it simple."
She wrote the initiative after her five-year crusade failed to persuade fellow legislators to outlaw the nets.
Called the Marine Resources Protection Act, the measure bars use of gill and trammel nets within 3 miles of California's shore, beginning Jan. 1, 1994. From 1991 to 1993, fishermen will have to buy annual permits to use them.
Allen, who represents a landlocked district, said she is not an environmentalist and admitted that she gets seasick on boats. But she has been unyielding in her cause, saying images of sea lions and otters struggling in nets haunt her.
"I can't even describe how I feel today," Allen said Wednesday. "It's almost euphoric. We won in every county in this state, except Fresno, and we almost won there. And most of those are all landlocked districts."
Of the 28 initiatives on the ballot, just six passed, and just two got more votes than the net measure--one involving earthquake safety and one that authorizes veteran bonds.
Perhaps voters were swayed by sentiment for marine creatures, recently stirred up by Humphrey, a humpback whale that keeps getting lost in San Francisco Bay, or the rare megamouth shark caught in a gill net off Dana Point and released unharmed last month.
Or maybe the measure succeeded because it did not directly hit the pocketbooks of the people or government.
"Probably why the others failed is that people kept seeing TV ads that tied them to money and tax scares," said John Borneman, regional representative of the National Audubon Society, which supported the net measure. "In California, wildlife initiatives usually pass, and the gill-net one wasn't tied to tax dollars."
Simplicity may have been another of the little-known measure's secrets.
"It was easy to read," Borneman said. "Unlike the others, it didn't have a counter-initiative. People were so fed up and confused and trying to weed through the charges and countercharges."
Supporters call the nylon nets "walls of death" because they sweep through the waters and catch a wide variety of species, including seals, sea lions and porpoises. Gill nets are stretched tight in the water like a volleyball net that measures several thousand feet long, while trammel nets are looser versions.
The fishing industry, however, said the nets are a safe and economical way to catch fish.
The ban will result in higher retail prices for fish and shortages of some varieties, especially halibut, said officials for the industry, which accused Allen of getting rid of commercial fishermen to clear the ocean for sportfishermen.
"I'm disappointed that it passed, but at the same time I'm very surprised at how relatively close it was," said Craig Ghio, chairman of the California Fisheries and Seafood Institute, a group representing fish processors and wholesalers and president of Ghio Seafoods in San Diego.
"The initiative was passed off as an environmental issue," Ghio said. "The sportfishing people disguised themselves behind whales and sea lions and sea otters, but 45% of the people saw through that and voted against it."
He said the nets have "very minimal impact" on mammals when used properly, but "the sportfishermen now will have the private use of . . . some of the best fishing grounds in the world."
About 250 California fishermen use the nets. A provision in the ballot measure grants them a onetime payment, equivalent to a year's catch, with the total reaching $3.4 million. The money will come from $3 fees added onto annual sportfishing and commercial fishing licenses.
State law already temporarily barred use of the nets off Northern and Central California. The ballot measure now locks that ban in place and extends it to the southern half of the state.
The campaign, mostly a grass-roots movement of people knocking on doors, cost about $800,000, Allen said. That is less than what supporters spent just to get enough signatures to qualify many of the other measures for the ballot.
Environmentalists were leery of Allen's campaign at first, because she was an unexpected ally. But eventually major marine groups gave their support, including the American Cetacean Society, the Marine Mammal Fund and the Cousteau Society.
The Sierra Club remained neutral, saying it was a battle between fishermen, not an environmental issue.
"Because I am a Republican, and I am from Orange County, and from a landlocked district, all these things worked against what I was trying to do," Allen said. "But whether I live on the coast, or whether I live in Fresno, these nets were unacceptable. I have not been known as an environmentalist, but . . . you can't look at the photographs of little baby sea lions with gouges in their neck and not get tears in your eyes."