We read with growing anger about the cutting of the budget for the U.S. Coast Guard {news story, Feb. 8}. It has been given greatly expanded duties in the field of drug interdiction, spending much of its limited resources on this administration priority. Drug control should be a priority, but the administration should face up to what is, in effect, a permanent change in the Coast Guard's role and fund it properly, rather than pretending that the service can absorb its new duties and still perform those it was originally designed for.

In the past, cuts in the Coast Guard budget have resulted in increased loss of life at sea. A National Transportation Safety Board study reported that "fishing vessel losses in the United States increased dramatically between 1981 and 1984." The year 1981 was the year of the RIFs in the Coast Guard. Coincidence? We doubt it. Our commercial fishing fleet has approximately 33,000 vessels, and the death rate in 1981-84 was an average of 75 per year. Canada has 45,000 vessels, and its annual death rate averages 28. Canada is also far more regulated. You figure out who's doing the better job.

We are among those who are working to pass legislation that would begin to deal with the total lack of regulation in the commercial fishing fleet. There are bills currently before Congress that would unquestionably save lives by requiring such basic equipment as life rafts, survival suits and emergency locator radio beacons. But passing those bills won't do the job if there aren't Coast Guard stations and personnel to back up the regulations and to perform the necessary search-and-rescue missions.

It isn't just dollars that are being cut, it's lives.


PEGGY BARRY Washington