New Study: Popular Surf Spots are Prime Areas for Biodiversity Conservation

August 2, 2021

Arlington, VA (Aug. 2, 2021) – recent analysis of globally recognized surf locations and Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) found that nearly two-thirds of surf spots are not formally protected, identifying an opportunity for the surf and conservation communities to join together in an effort to protect and conserve these culturally significant areas that are key for biodiversity and economies.  

The study, published in the scientific journal Frontiers in Marine Science, was co-authored by Conservation International’s Kellee Koenig, Senior GIS Manager / Cartographer; Jack Kittinger, Vice President in the Center for Oceans; and Nik Strong-Cvetich, Save the Waves CEO. The study was led by Dan Reineman of the Environmental Science and Research Program at California State University Channel Islands.  

The analysis surveyed more than 3,700 surf locations around the world, with data provided by the global surf forecasting company Surfline Inc. It found: 

  • Surf breaks are globally distributed (3,755 distinct surf breaks across 93 countries);  
  • Six countries (USA, Australia, Brazil, Mexico, Japan and France) account for 59% of the global total; 
  • 50 countries contain 10 or more surf breaks;  
  • Some surf breaks are already situated within—and more are situated near—existing protected areas, but roughly three-fifths of all surf breaks are not within MPAs; and 
  • More than 25% of all surf breaks are within 5 km of a Key Biodiversity Area.  

“We’re losing ocean biodiversity rapidly due to climate change, overfishing, and pollution – these threats are getting more intense every year. The proximity of surf breaks to areas with critical habitats and biodiversity creates a unique opportunity to implement a network of protected surf locations that will also support the survival of coastal ecosystems and the important species they harbor,” said Kittinger.  

Despite the significant benefits that surf breaks provide to the environment they – and their surrounding ecosystems – are under threat from the impacts of climate change, sea level rise, coastal development, pollution and coral reef degradation.  

“These results give conservation organizations another tool for their toolbox,” Reineman explained. “Instead of just focusing on biodiversity protection for its own sake, they can also focus on surf break protection—and use the culturally and economically significant sport of surfing to increase protections for biodiversity, also.”  

The development of a new model that could guide ocean and coastal conservation and mobilize the surfing community – a group that often cares deeply about the health of the ocean – has the potential to engage the world’s 34 million surfers to support the long-term health of these ecosystems.  

In 2019, Conservation International and Save The Waves Coalition joined forces to create the Surf Conservation Partnership. Its aim is to mobilize surfing communities on a global scale and protect areas where outstanding surfing waves and the most biologically diverse marine and coastal ecosystems overlap. The goal: to sustainably manage millions of hectares of coral reefs, coastal forests and other critical habitats in areas that otherwise would not be conserved.  

“We’ve found surfers value this type of conservation partnership because it enables them to be part of a process that protects the waves they care about, they are passionate and energized and dedicated to the long-term sustainability of these areas,” said Strong-Cvetich, co-author and Save the Waves CEO.  

In addition to their biodiversity benefits, surf breaks and related tourism generate an average $31-65 billion USD  annually and participants are often willing to pay more for sustainable tourism opportunities.   

“Not only are many of these areas important to conserve for biodiversity, but they are also a force in the economies of communities around the world. Surf conservation creates a unique opportunity to improve the health of the ocean and support the livelihoods of people,” said Koenig.  

To help raise awareness of the importance of waves, Conservation International recently released “The Wave,” the newest addition to its award-winning “Nature is Speaking” series. The film is voiced by Aquaman actor, Hawaiian-native and ocean sustainability advocate Jason Momoa. It highlights the urgent need to protect and conserve the global ocean for the benefit of humanity. 

To read and download a full version of the peer reviewed study, “Conservation Opportunities Arise from the Co-Occurrence of Surfing and Key Biodiversity Areas,” click here.  

To learn more about the Surf Conservation Partnership, click here


About Conservation International
Conservation International works to protect the critical benefits that nature provides to people. Through science, partnerships and fieldwork, Conservation International is driving innovation and investments in nature-based solutions to the climate crisis, supporting protections for critical habitats, and fostering economic development that is grounded in the conservation of nature. Conservation International works in 30 countries around the world, empowering societies at all levels to create a cleaner, healthier and more sustainable planet. Follow Conservation International's work on Conservation NewsFacebookTwitterInstagram and YouTube.