Surf Protection, Surf Economics
June 28 2011

Can artificial surf reefs reduce crowds?

Paul Holmes recently published a provocative article about artificial surfing reefs in The Surfer’s Journal, “Artificial Surf Reefs: Boon or Bust?” (Vol 20 Num 3). In that article, he quoted me regarding whether or not artificial surfing reefs (ASRs) could reduce crowds. I replied with some back of the envelope math. Here’s the quote:

“We’ve got 800,000 surfers in California. If you do the math, you have maybe 8,000 surf spots in California and that averages out to 100 guys per spots. If you add 1,000 artificial reefs, your going to reduce the crowd by what, ten guys?”

If 8,000 surf spots in California struck you as ridiculously high, well you are correct. 800 is more realistic. Some how Paul and I got our zeros crossed, for which I take full responsibility.

So where did these estimates come from?

California surf spots:

I estimated that there are 800 spots in California by taking the estimate off of wannasurf, which lists 467 surf spots in California and roughly doubling it to account for some spots that have several peaks and all those little extra waves we find adjacent to or inside surf spots that probably are not counted.

Surfers in California:

Nobody has a very recent count of the number of surfers in California, but the best formal estimate comes from a NOAA marine recreation survey that was published in 2000. They estimate that there are approximately 1,114,000 people in California who surfed the previous year and there average number of surf sessions was about 23 surf sessions per year, which suggests they are catching fairly avid surfers. You can read more those estimates for CA and the rest of the nation here


For my back of the envelope estimation, I rounded this down to 800,000 to make the math easy.

So what I meant to say to Paul is:

With 800 surf spots and approximately 800,000 surfs, that is 1,000 surfers per spot. If you add 100 more spots, by building 100 ASRs (that actually work), you would reduce the crowds by 10%  - about 110 surfers per spots, which may sound like a lot but still leaves an average of 890 per surf spot and that is with 100 new surf spots!


California Today with 100 new reefs
surf spots 800 900
surfers 800,000 800,000
surfers/spot 1000 889


If the actual figures supplied by WannaSurf and NOAA of 467 surf spots and 1.114 million surfers in CA are used, the average is 1681 surfers per spot. Using those figures and adding 100 reefs would reduce the average crowd by 17% but would still leave 1289 surfers per wave.

California Today with 100 new reefs
surf spots 800 900
surfers 800,000 800,000
surfers/spot 1681 1389


When you consider that an ASR costs about $3-5 million to construct and that so far the results have been poor, I would not expect to see a half a billion dollars invested in the hope of reducing crowds by 10% any time soon. I am afraid we are going to continue to go about our normal tricks to find uncrowded waves in California or move to a place where the surfers/spot ratio is better than it is in most parts of California.

Here's another opinion on ASRs and crowd reduction by Jim Moriarity, with similar conclusions.

Read more back of the envelope math on surfing & crowds by the Surfer's Journal here.