Monday, March 9, 2009

Fishermen refuse to ignore ocean pollution, push for water-quality protections

Santa Barbara News Press

Opinion: CLEAN SEAS, PLEASE : Fishermen refuse to ignore ocean pollution, push for water-quality protections

Bruce Steele
March 8, 2009 9:58 AM

Mention Santa Barbara's East Beach to anyone and they won't necessarily think about the beautiful, sandy shoreline. Swimmers may think of the eye and ear infections and rashes that come from the grossly polluted water, especially after a heavy rain.

But sadly, East Beach isn't even close to being the biggest culprit threatening human health in Southern California. That honor goes to Catalina Island's Avalon Beach, closely followed by Cabrillo Beach in San Pedro. In fact, seven of the top 10 most polluted coastal sites in California are in Southern California, according to a recent survey.

That's because for years, our coastal waters have been a dumping ground for all sorts of toxic pollutants, yet a comprehensive plan to clean things up never has been proposed.

How is it possible that the greenest state in the union can't come up with a plan to address the threats to our ocean in a balanced, meaningful way?

That's what a dedicated group of fishermen has been asking as they participate in the state's effort to implement the Marine Life Protection Act -- a plan that's supposed to address all impacts to the ocean, including critical issues like water quality, to help protect, restore and improve fragile marine ecosystems.

Unfortunately for us all, the Schwarzenegger administration so far has gone out of its way to avoid even considering any increased water-quality protections.

But, it is hoped things will change soon.

In January, fishermen persuaded fellow members of the South Coast Regional Stakeholder Group -- which makes recommendations to the governor's Blue Ribbon Task Force for Marine Protected Areas -- to make water quality improvements an objective when setting out specific benefits to be accomplished within these protected areas.

If the stakeholder group's recommendations are accepted by the task force -- which is meeting for the first time since the recommendations were made -- it will mean that from Santa Barbara to Mexico, a balanced and comprehensive ocean protection plan still will be a possibility.

And that's exactly what our state needs.

The consequences of not addressing pollution, not acting now, will linger with us for years. In fact, a recent study by researchers at California State University Long Beach, found that California sea lions and seals living off the Palos Verdes Peninsula have extremely high contamination levels -- but not contamination from recent activity as one would imagine. Rather, these animals are suffering from discharges of toxic DDT and a group of industrial compounds called PCBs, which were banned 35 years ago.

So why has it been so difficult to get the state to take a long-term, comprehensive approach to protecting the ocean?

Polls show Californians agree that new regulations should focus on creating environmental benefits, not simply levying more and unfair penalties against family fishermen and small businesses trying to provide recreation and local seafood to California's residents.

As long as the dumping of toxins, fecal matter and urban runoff is allowed to continue unchecked, piling duplicate fishing restrictions onto an already heavily regulated activity won't help create healthy ecosystems.

Right now, major new restrictions on fishing are being rushed forward, but no comparable initiatives regarding pollution and the other causes of concern have been proposed in this Marine Life Protection Act Initiative process. Only the fishermen, so far it seems, are raising the concern for long-term, meaningful ocean protection.

It is hoped that members of the Blue Ribbon Task Force and any others who truly care about the ocean are listening and will soon join to demand that new regulations generate new environmental and public health benefits.

The author has dived commercially for sea urchins for 35 years, fishing out of Santa Barbara harbor.

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