To save marine habitats, conservationists find natural ally: surfers

© Reniw-Imagery

Across the globe, hundreds of areas with world-class surfing waves also contain a variety of diverse marine species.

Those waves mean big money — generating an estimated US$ 50 billion in economic activity from surfers.

But beneath those waves is something that’s also extremely valuable: a wealth of marine life.

For conservationists looking to protect these areas, it seemed natural to appeal to the people who greatly value them. Surfers make powerful advocates for the ocean, according to Scott Atkinson, senior technical adviser for Conservation International’s Hawai‘i Program and Coral Triangle Initiative. Recently, Human Nature caught up with Atkinson — a surfer himself — who spoke about a new partnership between CI and the Save The Waves Coalition to mobilize the surfing community to help protect marine areas.

Q: What problems are you seeing that make you want to protect the ocean?

A: Marine areas around the world are threatened by coastal development, sewage, runoff and plastic pollution, overfishing, and increasingly by the impacts of climate change like coral bleaching and sea level rise. But what really motivates me is how much local communities depend on ocean resources for food and income. Without a healthy ocean, millions of people will struggle to survive.

Q: What does protecting the ocean mean to you as a surfer?

A: My own desire to conserve the ocean developed through decades of chasing waves at home in Hawaiʻi and across the planet. This experience is not unique. Jacques Cousteau, who was so well-known for his underwater expeditions, famously said, “people protect what they love,” and the surfing community loves the world’s oceans. This was fully evident at the recent Global Wave Conference, organized by Save The Waves and the Surfrider Foundation, where more than 300 conservationists and surfers came together to discuss how to expand ocean and wave conservation.

ci_78371779From left: Dr. M. Sanjayan, Conservation International CEO; Jack Kittinger, senior director of Conservation International’s Global Fisheries and Aquaculture program; and Nik Strong-Cvetich, executive director of Save The Waves, sign a surf board in Menlo Park, California. (© Conservation International/photo by Katie Russell)

Q: How did Conservation International get involved with Save The Waves?

A: Conservation International and Save The Waves first met in Uluwatu in Bali, which is home to one of the most culturally significant temples in Indonesia, one of the most biodiverse reef areas on the island and one of the best surf spots on the planet. Uluwatu is threatened by coastal development, plastic pollution, sewage and overfishing. Save The Waves and CI used Surfonomics to understand the economic value of surfing to communities in Bali and communicate that to local decision-makers. Conservationists and surfers are also continuing to work across Bali to protect marine areas and improve environmental quality to protect surfing waves.

Q: What is Surfonomics and how was it used in Uluwatu?

A: Surfonomics determines the economic value of waves and surfing to local communities to help decision-makers choose to protect the value of their coasts and waves.

By using Surfonomics, we found that the surf break at Uluwatu contributes US$ 35.3 million per year to the local community and visiting surfers are willing to pay US$ 5-20 per visit to protect it. With more than 34 million surfers worldwide, surfing is multi-billion industry that can contribute much more to marine conservation.

Q: What are CI and Save The Waves working on now?

A: We’re working to expand and strengthen the World Surfing Reserve system, which was initiated in 2009 to identify, designate and preserve outstanding waves, surf zones and surrounding environments. There are currently 10 World Surfing Reserves that are providing legal protection to priority areas. For a place to become a World Surfing Reserve, the local community has to come together and submit an application that explains why their coast deserves to be protected. Then, Save The Waves decides to designate the area as a World Surfing Reserve based on four criteria: The quality and consistency of the waves, the environmental characteristics of the place, the strength of the surf history and culture, and the support of the local community. If the areas is chosen, Save The Waves works with the local community and government to help establish legal protections for the beaches and watershed.

Through the new partnership, Conservation International and Save The Waves are working to increase the number of World Surfing Reserves across the globe.

Q: What’s next?

A: We’re also working a concept that is a very new approach for marine conservation. This is the creation of Surf Protected Areas Networks in significant surfing geographies that are located in global conservation hotspots. The idea is to work with the protected area systems in priority countries to achieve legal protection of areas that are both important for marine biodiversity and for surfing waves.  Just as poorly planned development and pollution can destroy marine ecosystems, they can also make waves “unsurfable,” essentially destroying their surfing value and negatively impacting local economies. The surf protected area networks will protect critical marine ecosystems and also protect the water — and the waves surfers love — by maintaining environmental quality. The idea is to keep surfers coming back and contributing to local economies. We also plan to apply surfonomics and other approaches to develop ways in which surf tourism can contribute financially to sustaining local conservation efforts. We are very excited about this innovation in marine conservation.

Scott Atkinson is the senior technical adviser for Conservation International’s Hawai‘i Program and Coral Triangle Initiative. Morgan Lynch is a staff writer for Conservation International.

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