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What does it mean to protect a wave? It can mean a range of things

June 23 2011 | Policy, Strategy, Waves, Modern Activism, Surfing,

You may have recently heard about the Governor of Hawaii’s executive order that established the Duke Kahanamoku Surfing Reserve and the North Shore Reserve on Oahu.

You may also be aware of the protective status of two waves–Tres Palmas in Puerto Rico and Bells Beach in Australia (pdf). And if you’re really dialed into this subject you may know about the fine work being done in Australia (National Surfing Reserves) and by Save the Waves (World Surfing Reserves).

I’m going to write a blog series on the subject of what it means to protect a wave.

To set that up I’ll first offer an illustration of the various levels of wave protection. When someone, anywhere talks about “saving waves” they can actually mean a range of things. Being a visual thinker I had to sketch what the various answers meant in relation to one another. I wanted to know why one was better than another, if they built on one another and figure out if “100% wave protection” can ever be accomplished.

Here’s an overview; wave protection starts when there is some kind of value associated to the wave. This protection becomes more meaningful as some level of distinction is attached and locals start to understand that they have the responsibility to protect what they hold dear. And waves enjoy deeper levels of protection when a legal distinction is tied to their protection. Additionally, waves get as close to being completely protected when there is a local group ready, willing and able to fight to protect the wave and have the protective status enforced.

Let’s start at the bottom of my graphic. A wave is most at risk when there is no policy or distinction attached to it and surfers (and other user groups) assume their wave is fine. Think of Harry’s in Baja. It was a “secret spot” and then it was at risk due to development… and then it was gone. Think of Killer Dana, gone. Think of whatever wave you’ve heard an older surfer talk about which is now gone.

One very clean lesson is if no one stands up to protect something, it will be taken away.

Moving up the scale, we find that a wave is less at risk when there is a some kind of non-binding wave protection status. Non-binding means that there is a plaque, perhaps some kind of designation with local commissions, but there is NOT a legal, protective element. Even a local resolution isn’t enough; a law is something that resources can be drawn on to offer protection and anything less is… less. These kinds of distinctions are good in that they start the process of assigning some value to the natural resource. The downside is there is nothing enforceable to turn to once the wave is under pressure from various forces.

We feel the next best level of protection a wave can have is when there is an existing local, grassroots group that CAN fight to protect a wave. Of course we’d think this because this is the essence of what we do in more than a dozen countries around the globe. A few distinctions should be clarified though. First, it’s not enough to simply have a group (a Surfrider chapter or another similar group) what’s needed is for that group to have the will to engage. I’ve had a few people tell me “My local wave was lost and where was Surfrider?” My response is always the same “We’re not some SWAT group that parachutes in to protect your local break… we’re you. If you’re not going to engage and work to protect something you hold dear then you shouldn’t be surprised when it’s taken away because that’s what happens time and time again.

Just above this level is having laws in place that not only designate the wave as a valuable natural resource but also have elements that are directly tied to protecting the wave form and the various other elements that contribute to making the wave unique and special. Attaining this stage of wave protection is not easy and it’s our view that only two waves in the world have this status–Tres Palmas in Puerto Rico and Bells Beach in Australia. That said, this is a level that we’re pushing for in the United States and beyond. It’s also worth noting that it’s crystal clear to us that having laws in place does not equate to laws being enforced. I’ve heard numerous people talk about the environmental movement with phrases like “we don’t need more laws, we simply need enforcement of the laws that already exist.” This brings me to the highest level of wave protection.

For a wave to have something approaching 100% protection, there must not only be laws in place to protect that wave, but there must also be local groups who care enough to act to make sure those laws are enforced in a timely and appropriate way.

I’ll look at this question from a few different angles in future posts. If you have any questions or requests on this subject please offer them as comments below.

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