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NEXT L.A. | A Line in the Sand

Seeking a state law that would turn its entire 27 miles of coastline into a marine refuge, Malibu is drawing


The city of Malibu is more wet than dry, its boundaries extending three miles into the ocean and only about a mile inland.

Dolphins were made honorary citizens in 1992 when Malibu declared itself a "human-dolphin shared environment."

So it is not surprising that the city is in the process of seeking a state law to designate its entire 27 miles of coast the Malibu Marine Refuge, protect sea life and perhaps even ban fishing.

More than 50 marine refuges have been set up by the state on the California coast, mostly to protect tide pool animals such as starfish and sea anemones. Most of the refuges are small, running less than a mile along the shore and about 1,000 feet out to sea from the median high tide line.

Malibu, however, is thinking big, hoping to get approval for a refuge encompassing its entire 3-mile-wide ocean frontage.

Mary Frampton, a Malibu resident who is the energy behind the local activist group Save Our Coast, receives the credit for pushing the refuge concept. Unsatisfied with the city's slow pace, she obtained the pro bono services of a Los Angeles law firm to determine the best way to establish a reserve.

With the law firm's help, she drafted a city ordinance that proposed banning the taking of all marine animals off the Malibu shore. The measure that actually came before the City Council was changed to allow sport fishing while prohibiting commercial fishing.

In November, the City Council adopted a resolution to seek special state legislation to create the refuge, with the details of restrictions to be decided after public hearings this fall.

First the city wants the results of a $20,000 study by UCLA marine biologist Richard Ambrose in order to inventory the city's marine resources, suggest controls for various features along the coast--beaches, kelp beds, rocky areas, sea lion resting areas--and propose how to manage the refuge.

In suggesting that the refuge be established, Malibu officials cited the decline of certain fish and other marine life, the loss of habitats such as kelp and sea grass beds and a degrading of tide pool fauna.

"Marine refuges are a big management tool being considered worldwide for areas which are depleted from overfishing," Ambrose said. The problem for Malibu, he said, is lack of good historical data on marine populations.

"We don't know if the fishery is depleted because we can't show how many fish there were in 1940," Ambrose said. His team of graduate students is looking at catch data from the state Department of Fish and Game to try to develop a picture of changes over time.

They are also gathering anecdotal information from Malibu old-timers such as marine biologist Rimmon Fay.

Fay may know as much about the bottom of the Santa Monica Bay as anybody. He has been diving off Malibu since 1955, collecting marine specimens that he ships throughout the world to researchers and schools. On a recent day, Fay was out in the bay hunting for sea urchins and starfish that were going to a junior college in Texas, and to Harvard and Columbia universities. He dropped his anchor in about 45 feet of water about a mile off Paradise Cove, and followed his anchor line down.

"It's not tropical water," he said. "It's Santa Monica Bay water--off-color, sort of brownish, there's suspended matter in it."

At around 30 feet, the water got colder and a little clearer. On the bottom Fay could see about 20 feet. Kelp bass, garibaldi, black perch and other fish came around, and he opened up some sea urchins for them to feed on.

Fay says the good news is that the water quality off Malibu is finally getting better. As he tells it, in 1944-45 there was so much sewage going into the ocean that some local beaches were quarantined. When he started scuba diving in 1955, there was more kelp than today, and an abundance of lobsters and abalone.

In 1970, the Federal Clean Water Act passed, and with a national ban on DDT also in effect, the decline in sea life began to slow. Fay said lobsters are doing pretty well, but abalone are near collapse and the kelp beds still need help. An overabundance of sea urchins, which feed on kelp and everything else that gets in their way, is leaving a barren, rocky bottom, Fay said.

Sea urchins are a reason that Fay does not support a ban on all taking of marine life within the refuge.

In the 1960s there were so many sea urchins that a biologist at Caltech came up with the idea of smashing them, and millions were hammered by divers before someone realized in the 1970s that the mustard-colored roe prized in Japan as uni commanded prices that made it a new form of California gold. A California "yellow rush" began and a new fishing industry was born.

Since Malibu has no harbors for fishing boats, and the seafood restaurants that line the coast buy fish from around the world, there's little home-based opposition to a fishing ban.

Lots of opposition, however, is expected from the commercial fishing industry if the ban becomes part of the final proposal.

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