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Press Release · November 13, 2003

It’s A Beach State … Of Mind: Despite Tumultuous Times, California’s Golden Coast Still Captures Hearts

Most Residents Willing To Pay To Safeguard Ocean, Beaches; High Environmental Expectations for Schwarzenegger

SAN FRANCISCO, California, November 13, 2003 — Whether coastal or inland dwellers, Californians love the Pacific. In a time of budget woes, political turmoil, and catastrophic natural disaster, large majorities of residents still place an extraordinary value on the state’s beaches and ocean, according to a survey released today by the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC) and the Hewlett, Irvine, and Packard Foundations. Across geography and political ideology, Californians display a profound desire to protect the coast despite potential economic costs.

Affection for the shoreline is clear: A vast majority (88%) of Californians say the condition of the ocean and beaches is personally important to them, with 60 percent saying it is very important. In fact, Californians (72%) are far more likely than Americans as a whole (40%) to visit an ocean beach at least several times per year. Strong majorities of Californians also believe the coastline’s condition is very important to the state’s quality of life (69%) and economy (61%).

Wariness About Coast’s Health Translates into Strong Public Policy Preferences

Consistent with the premium they place on the coastline, Californians express high levels of concern over coastal conditions and strong support for policies that protect the ocean and beaches. Over half (52%) believe the quality of the ocean along the state’s shoreline has deteriorated in the past two decades, and 45 percent say ocean conditions are likely to worsen over the next twenty years.

Concerns about the coast top the list of environmental worries, with 53 percent of residents saying ocean and beach pollution is a big problem in California today. Specifically, 52 percent describe pollution from streets and storm drains and contamination of fish and seafood as big problems, while strong majorities say declining numbers of marine mammals (74%), commercial overfishing (71%), coastal development (71%), and limited public access to the beaches (58%) are at least somewhat of a problem.

But are Californians willing to turn their concern into action? Despite partisan divisions on many issues, state residents are surprisingly in step on their willingness to ante up for coastal protection. Two-thirds of Californians – including majorities of Democrats, Republicans, and independents – favor limiting the sale of fish and seafood to environmentally safe products, even if this results in higher consumer prices (67%), and support restricting private development along the coast, even if it results in less available housing (69%). Three in four residents support protecting wetlands and beach/bay habitats even if it means less commercial activity near the coast (77%), and favor creating more marine reserves, even if it limits commercial and recreational fishing (75%). “Californians see the coastline as a precious resource and an important part of their own lives,” says survey director Mark Baldassare. “But the degree to which people are willing to protect the beaches and ocean, even at the expense of economic growth, is striking.”

While half of Californians (50%) favor prohibiting new off-shore oil drilling along California’s coast, even if it means higher gasoline prices, there is a notable partisan split on this issue: Democrats favor a ban on new drilling by almost two-to-one (60% to 35%), while independents are narrowly divided (49% to 46%) and Republicans are strongly opposed (39% to 55%).

Walk on Water? High Environmental Expectations of Schwarzenegger Administration

Nearly uniformly, residents agree that environmental protection should be a priority for Governor-elect Arnold Schwarzenegger. Almost one-third (32%) of Californians think it should be a top priority, while a large majority (57%) say it should be an important priority. Nearly half (49%) of all California residents say environmental protection should be a priority for state government even if it curbs economic growth, while fewer residents (42%) think economic growth should be the top priority even if the environment suffers. And despite the state’s enormous budget deficit, 48 percent of Californians support funding environmental programs at current levels, even at the expense of other state programs, while only 35 percent support reducing environmental funding.

However, the state’s likely voters are narrowly divided on the balance the new administration should strike between environmental and economic priorities: Forty-six percent favor protecting the environment even if it curbs economic growth, and 45 percent favor economic growth even if the environment suffers. There is a partisan divide on this issue, with Democrats (54%) and independents (50%) favoring environmental protection, and Republicans (61%) preferring economic growth.

According to Baldassare, balancing economic and environmental concerns will be a tall order for the new governor, but thus far, Schwarzenegger is in good standing with the public. “Although it’s early in the game, Californians are generally supportive of Schwarzenegger’s plans and policies for the state’s future.” Indeed, by nearly a two-to-one margin (47% to 25%), residents back the governor-elect, with Republicans (69%) and independents (53%) expressing greater support than Democrats (32%).

President George W. Bush’s overall approval rating stands at 48 percent in California. Residents are critical of his performance on the environment, with nearly half of Californians (49%) and a majority of likely voters (53%) saying they disapprove of his handling of national environmental issues. A majority of residents (54%) also say the federal government is not doing enough to protect the country’s coastal and marine environment, with Democrats and Republicans deeply split on the issue (70% to 33%).

Residents Trust State to Govern Coast, But Some Believe California Coastal Commission Too Lax

A smaller, but still significant, number of Californians (44%) also say the state is not doing enough to protect California’s coastal environment. Despite their concern, more residents trust the state (42%) rather than local (30%) or federal (14%) governments to manage marine and coastal issues. However, they want to see more action: One-third (38%) of state residents say the California Coastal Commission is not strict enough in its regulation of development along California’s coast, while only 11 percent say the commission’s controls are too strict.

Levels of Coastal Concern Differ By Region, Ethnicity

Despite shared concern for their 1,100 mile-long coastline, there are regional and racial/ethnic differences in Californians’ attitudes about coastal issues. In particular, residents of the South Coast region (Santa Barbara, Ventura, Los Angeles, Orange, and San Diego Counties) place greater importance on the shoreline, are more concerned about worsening coastal conditions, and are more personally connected to the ocean and beaches than those who live in the North Coast or Inland regions (see page ii for a map of the regions). More South Coast residents (74%) than residents of the North Coast and Inland regions (67% and 62%, respectively) believe the condition of the coastline is very important to California’s quality of life. South Coast residents (66%) are also more likely than those in the North Coast (56%) or Inland (57%) regions to say the ocean and beaches are very important to the economy.

Consequently, South Coast residents are also more anxious about shoreline conditions: Fifty-seven percent think the condition of the ocean has grown worse in the past twenty years, while 44 percent of North Coast and 50 percent of Inland residents share this perception. Far more residents of the South Coast (62%) than of the North Coast (45%) or Inland (46%) regions think ocean and beach pollution in California is a big problem. “Recent beach contamination warnings as well as a prevailing beach ethos in southern coastal California heighten the concern of local residents,” says Baldassare. Indeed, nearly half (46%) of South Coast residents say they visit a California beach at least once a month, significantly more than residents of the North Coast (39%), and far more than those Inland (16%).

Interestingly, Latinos are more concerned than non-Hispanic whites about many of the environmental problems affecting the coastline. For example, they are more likely to view as big problems ocean and beach pollution (66% to 49%), the contamination of seafood (64% to 46%), declining numbers of sea mammals (54% to 40%), overfishing (46% to 32%), and public access to the coast (27% to 17%).

More Key Findings

  • Safe Seafood? — Page 17
    Although 54 percent of Californians eat fish or seafood often, half of adults (50%) and most Latinos (62%) are very concerned that what they are consuming could be harmful due to contamination.
  • Finding Nemo — Page 18
    Almost one-third (30%) of households with children in California keep pet fish. Seventy-three percent of all Californians say they have visited an aquarium or other public place with live fish in the past year.
  • Surf’s Up! — Page 14
    Ten percent of Californians and 13 percent of South Coasters have surfed in the state’s ocean or bays in the past year, but far more residents have gone ocean or bay swimming (43%). Fewer older residents (55 and older) than younger ones (18-34) participated in an ocean or bay activity in the past year (20% to 31%).

About the Survey

The Californians and the Environment survey is a special edition of the PPIC Statewide Survey. It is the sixth in a four-year, multisurvey series on growth, land use, and the environment, produced in collaboration with The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, The James Irvine Foundation, and The David and Lucile Packard Foundation. Findings of the current survey are based on a telephone survey of 2,004 California adult residents interviewed from October 24 to November 2, 2003. Interviews were conducted in English or Spanish. The sampling error for the total sample is +/- 2%. The sampling error for subgroups is larger. For more information on survey methodology, see page 19.

Mark Baldassare is research director at PPIC, where he holds the Arjay and Frances Fearing Miller Chair in Public Policy. He is founder of the PPIC Statewide Survey, which he has directed since 1998. His most recent book, A California State of Mind: The Conflicted Voter in a Changing World, is available at

PPIC is a private, nonprofit organization dedicated to improving public policy through objective, nonpartisan research on the economic, social, and political issues that affect Californians. The institute was established in 1994 with an endowment from William R. Hewlett. PPIC does not take or support positions on any ballot measure or on any local, state, or federal legislation, nor does it endorse, support, or oppose any political parties or candidates for public office.