Coastweek: A time to rouse public concern for the fragile ocean shoreline

This is ''Coastweek.'' From the Gulf of Maine to the Gulf of Mexico, on the Pacific beaches, and as far afield as the distant shores of Hawaii, people are celebrating the beauty and utility of the nation's coasts.

Coastweek, organized by a band of coastal experts around the nation, is being observed by at least 27 states. These coast advocates say Coastweek is just a natural outgrowth of increasing awareness and interest people are taking in the seaside.

Events in Massachusetts range from canoe trips, walks on Cape Cod dunes, and whale watches to a workshop on oil spills, a symposium on tidelands, and a cruise and lecture on the biology of Boston Harbor. Similar events are taking place in other New England states.

But paradoxically, this growing public interest comes at a time when support from the federal government for the coasts is declining.

Ever since the landing of the Pilgrims, New Englanders have maintained close ties with the coast - the fragile, ever-changing no-man's land between roaring sea and terra firma. People have long tried to tame this no-man's land - to mold and shape it, to fish from its waters, and more recently, to line it with condominiums.

Now more people and organizations are enjoying its benefits, while at the same time striving to live within the balance of natural forces. Determining how coastal areas should be managed, developed, or preserved often has been ''haphazard,'' at best, says Richard F. Delaney, director of the Massachusetts Coastal Zone Management program. Like similar CZM programs in 28 other coastal states, it is trying to bring order to scores of pressing coastal issues.

Development is increasing, experts say. Estimates are that by the end of the century 75 percent of all Americans will live within 25 miles of a coast, says Mr. Delaney. Water pollution in urban areas is an enormous problem.

Vital barrier beaches, tidal flats, and salt marshes are being filled in or bulldozed to make way for development. The fishing industry is declining. There are cries for greater regulation of offshore oil drilling.

And a very complex but fundamental question looms, say experts: What is the balance between the rights of private ownership vs. the rights of public access to everyone's oceans?

The CZM program in Massachusetts is working to develop cohesive policies to meet the needs of coastal areas and residents. For instance, Delaney says that ''people don't appreciate the dynamics of a natural coastline.'' CZM now is trying to discourage growth in hazard-prone areas like barrier beaches.

''It's not that we can't build near the coast,'' Delaney says. ''It makes all kinds of sense to use the benefits of the coast; we just need to stay away from danger-prone areas.'' Such areas account for about 20 percent of the shoreline.

Similarly, many of these same areas - barrier beaches, tidal flats, and salt marshes - serve vital purposes, and need protection.

Brenda Boleyn, a professor of biological sciences at Cape Cod Community College in West Barnstable, Mass., says that salt marshes are essential for flood control. She says that the marshes act like giant sponges, absorbing great amounts of water. ''In a storm, they will be as calm as a mill pond,'' she says.

Professor Boleyn recently spent a year on sabbaticalstudying an 18-acre section of a large salt marsh in Yarmouth Port. As a part of the Coastweek celebration, she decided to help her friends at the college discover the mysteries of the marsh.

For much of last Saturday afternoon, a group from the college tromped through and paddled canoes around a moderately chilly salt marsh. Everything was thoughtfully arranged - a ''press canoe'' stood ready for reporters from the college newspaper and one outsider.

Besides flood control, salt marshes have other important functions. Professor Boleyn says that as much as 60 to 70 percent of marine life, including bass and flounder, is born in them. The marshes also help protect fresh ground-water supplies, and can chemically filter small amounts of pollution. She says it has taken years for marine biologists to convince policymakers and the public of the importance of preserving them.

Since World War II, 40 to 45 percent of coastal salt marshes have been destroyed - either dredged to make marinas or filled in for housing. Once they've been destroyed, they're not easily replaced, experts say. The marsh in Yarmouth Port is estimated to be 4,000 to 5,000 years old.

''The best thing to do with a salt marsh is to leave it on it's own,'' Professor Boleyn says.

Natural forces on the coasts create a delicate balance, she says. Because of this, CZM officials study the impact certain man-made projects will have. According to director Delaney, a plan to generate electricity by harnessing the huge tides in Canada's Bay of Fundy may seriously affect New England.

Preliminary research indicates that a giant tidal dam in the Bay of Fundy could cause a change in the tides as far south as Cape Cod Bay. In the Gulf of Maine, high tides could be 30 inches higher, and in Cape Cod Bay they could be as much as six inches higher.

While six inches might not seem like a lot, this could cause increased erosion, Delaney says. Some marshes would be inundated and new areas would become marshes. Low-lying areas would be more subject to flooding, and houses could be lost.

At the same time, however, Delaney says this research also indicates that the rich fishing area of Georges Bank could become more productive as a result of such tidal ''resonance.'' Delaney says this is not ''science fiction,'' but is a time when the New England states must pull together to verify these conclusions.

The problem, Delaney says, is trying to raise money for such a study - or for any of the other coastal activities CZM is watching. Despite the increasing impact of coast-related issues - such as hazardous waste disposal, tidal forces, oil exploration, and development - Delaney says the federal government appears to have decided it is ''inappropriate to be involved'' in such state matters.

Federal funds account for 80 percent of the Massachusetts CZM operating budget. In 1980-81, that amounted to $1.7 million, Delaney says. For 1983-84 that figure has been cut to $350,000. Similarly, funding for several other programs, such as a marine fisheries program and an educational sea grant program, have been cut.

Delaney says the country is facing a coastal management crisis. ''Our office is facing possible extinction by the end of next year,'' Delaney says, and adds that his primary job during the last two years has been to lobby in Washington for increased funding.

Coastweek activities will continue through the weekend. Barbara Fegan, a coastal expert in Wellfleet, Mass., says with a laugh that the real story is that the Coastweek celebration was pulled together with ''no office, no budget, no staff, no fund raising, and no copy machine!''

She says the breadth of the week's activities indicate the interest people have in the shore. Ms. Fegan says she worked to ''point people to something they already have an interest in. It didn't need to be sold.''

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