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Stronger Protections Proposed as Coast Becomes Focus of Legislature

Politics: Fishing and environmental groups back more than 30 bills to cut pollution, restore wildlife habitat.


SACRAMENTO — Declaring that the health of California's coast is in jeopardy, an alliance of environmental and fishing groups Thursday threw their support behind more than 30 bills proposing dramatic new protections for the shoreline and marine life.

The legislation, written by Democrats and Republicans alike, seeks to reduce pollution, replenish depleted fisheries, restore wildlife habitat and defend public access to California's renowned beaches.

If passed and signed by Gov. Pete Wilson, the proposed laws would create the most substantial new coastal protections since the state Coastal Act was passed by the voters in 1976.

"In the last two years of the Legislature, nothing good happened for the environment--and in fact, we took some significant losses," said Gary Patton, a lobbyist for the Planning and Conservation League. "This year . . . we're going to make progress."

Patton and others are confident for several reasons. For starters, many freshmen lawmakers campaigned and won on a pledge to protect California's coast--and are now anxious to deliver.

Moreover, Wilson appears to share the view that the state's marine resources deserve new attention. In January, he unveiled a "coastal initiative" that would, among other things, create an office to expedite wetlands restoration and fund several coastal enhancement projects.

The Wilson administration is also a co-sponsor of a major Oceans Policy Conference in San Diego next week. At the conference, scientific research is likely to illuminate many of the perils facing the state's 1,100-mile-long coast, pressuring politicians to act.

Whether the legislators and the governor agree on just what the coast needs remains to be seen. One stumbling block may be money. Wilson has allocated less than $13 million for his coastal program, an amount environmentalists call a pittance.

"Clearly, there will be robust debate about every aspect of this agenda, finances included," said Assemblyman Fred Keeley (D-Boulder Creek), author of two major bills. "But we need the governor. It's not going to happen without him."

Wilson's spokesman did not respond to requests for comment Thursday. State Resources Agency Secretary Douglas P. Wheeler was traveling and could not be reached.

The flurry of legislation comes at a critical time for the coast and the rich array of species that call it home. A broad range of problems have taken a toll in recent years, prompting many marine scientists to speak with alarm about the future.

Overfishing is one concern. White abalone, for example, may soon be the first marine species to become extinct in California. In the 1970s, divers took as much as 140,000 pounds of white abalone a year; because of over-harvesting, only 11 white abalone are known to exist in state waters today.

Pollution is another threat, with one study detecting DDT in dolphins off Southern California at the highest concentrations ever recorded in marine mammals. Poaching, too, is taking a toll, with as much as 64 million pounds of sea life illegally lifted from waters off California each year.

Exacerbating these problems are budget cuts that have left both state and regulatory agencies stretched thin and hard-pressed to document, let alone attack, the problems, critics say.

"In the last election, voters made it clear that the health of the coast was a high priority," said Assemblywoman Debra Bowen (D-Marina del Rey), author of two coastal bills and chairwoman of the Assembly Natural Resources Committee, through which most of the legislation will pass. "It's time for us to respond."

The bills introduced this year were written by nearly two dozen lawmakers representing districts from San Diego to the Oregon border. Some of the legislation would:

* Create a science-oriented Sea Life Management Commission to oversee the coastal ecosystem. The commission would take over the job of managing ocean fisheries from the state Department of Fish and Game, which has been widely accused of neglecting its offshore responsibilities.

* Place a $663-million clean water bond act before voters in November 1998. Most of the money would go toward buying and restoring wetlands, urban waterfronts and river corridors, including $35 million for the Los Angeles River.

* Establish marine sanctuaries to better safeguard sea life.

* Fund efforts to improve the control of storm drain runoff, a major source of ocean contamination, especially in Southern California.

* Require regular testing of coastal waters for pollution, and mandate the immediate posting of health warning signs for beaches on a contaminated stretch of coast.

* Enhance protection of squid, rockfish and other intensively harvested species.

* Toughen penalties for poaching.

* Bar anyone who has violated the state Coastal Act from being appointed to the state Coastal Commission.

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