Ocean Protection, Marine Protected Areas, Surf Protection, Surfing Reserves
February 12 2013

Surfing & MPAs: Putting the Stoke in Conservation

by Pete Stauffer

(This article originally appeared in NOAA's MPA Connections Newsletter)

Photo credit: Pete StaufferSurfing is one of the most popular and enjoyable ways to experience the ocean, so it should come as no surprise that the sport is a growing use of our nation’s marine protected areas (MPAs).

Every year, millions of Americans go surfing in national marine sanctuaries, state marine reserves, marine parks and wildlife areas, and other designations that offer surfing opportunities. From the California coast to the Hawaiian Islands; from Washington’s Olympic Coast to Rincón, Puerto Rico; from the Florida Keys to Oregon, MPAs are home to some of the best surfing spots in the country.

These quality wave resources attract surfers from both near and far who bring their enthusiasm - as well as economic benefits - to the local community. Moreover, surfers are among the most dedicated of oceans users, which means they visit regularly, and often during otherwise unpopular times such as early mornings and the winter months.

As ocean users who depend on the protection of the marine environment, surfers are both beneficiaries and stewards of MPAs. Here we further examine the relationship between surfers and marine protected areas.

Protecting Surfing
MPAs can play an important role in protecting surfing opportunities through conservation of the natural environment. This includes the preservation of reefs that form surf breaks, kelp beds that reduce chop in the water, and sedimentation flows that create sand bars, channels, and beaches. By providing holistic protection, MPAs can preserve the structure and function of the nearshore environment, which produces wave riding opportunities. MPAs may also protect water quality - both through encouragement and regulation – which can be a limiting factor for surfing, particularly near urban and agricultural areas.

MPAs also enhance the overall experience of surfing through protecting biodiversity, wildlife abundance, and scenic viewsheds. While such factors may seem secondary to the activity of wave riding, they undoubtedly enrich the quality of experience for surfers who value recreating in a natural setting. Meanwhile, facilities such as bathrooms, showers, signs, and parking provide valued amenities, which may not be available in other surfing locations.

Benefits of Surfers
Surfers exit the water at Cape Falcon Marine Reserve, Oregon. Photo credit: Pete StaufferThe relationship between MPAs and surfers is reciprocal. Surfers also provide important benefits to MPAs and local communities. Foremost among these are the economic impacts from entrance and parking fees, as well as trip-related expenditures such as local shopping, hotel visits, dining, and equipment rentals. This economic stimulus can provide important revenue for MPAs and the community, particularly during the “off-season” (e.g., winter months), when other forms of visitation and recreation are down.

Surfers can also contribute to the stewardship and public outreach of MPAs. Many surfers feel a strong connection to their local break and participate in volunteer activities such as beach cleanups, scientific monitoring, and outreach events. The Surfrider Foundation and other groups and clubs representing surfers can also foster participation in stewardship efforts and serve as valuable partners for public outreach. Finally, as regular users of MPAs, surfers can help promote understanding and compliance with rules among the broader population of visitors. Given the limited budget and staff of many MPAs, such citizen involvement can play an important role in advancing the lasting protection of MPA designations.

Potential Conflicts
While surfing is generally recognized as a low-impact use that is fully compatible with resource protection, there are some cases where MPA designations include restrictions on surfing or other forms of human access. These restrictions are usually triggered by highly sensitive or protected species such as marine mammals and seabirds. For example, California has established “special closures” within some northern California marine reserves to limit disturbance of nesting seabirds. Such restrictions are rare and may be necessary for MPAs to meet ecological goals and compliance with federal statutes such as the Endangered Species Act. As a key stakeholder group, surfers should be consulted and included in any discussions regarding potential restrictions on surfing access in MPAs. 

Looking to the Future
As surfing continues to grow in popularity, MPA managers should consider the needs and benefits of surfers, as well as the role that surfing can play in advancing MPA goals. As discussed above, surfing is compatible - if not synergistic - with resource protection, and can also provide major economic and social benefits. Embracing surfing as a beneficial use of MPAs can produce a range of positive outcomes for both the designation and the surrounding community.

It is also notable that several iconic surfing locations around the world, including Malibu’s Surfrider Beach, have been designated as World Surfing Reserves. An initiative of the Save the Waves Coalition, the World Surfing Reserves program is designed to identify and protect outstanding waves, surf zones and their surrounding environments. While these designations do not confer formal (i.e., regulatory) protection, they can help build recognition and political will to protect the resource from future threats. Such designations suggest that there is opportunity for further alignment between MPAs and surfing protection.