08 • 15 • 2016

Taking Back the Coast: Ocean Planning and the Fight to Protect Special Places

By Pete Stauffer

Talk to any seasoned Surfrider activist and you’ll quickly uncover the battle scars. Stories of fighting bad projects that threaten our coasts and ocean. Crusades against powerful development interests. Politicians unwilling to listen to the pleas of coastal users to protect our surf breaks, sandy beaches, rocky reefs and wildlife from all manner of threats.

From Surfrider’s humble beginnings over 30 years ago, our reputation as a chapter-based juggernaut has steadily grown. We’re now widely recognized for our inspired grassroots activism to defend our nation’s coasts. Indeed, it’s this David vs. Goliath mentality that’s part of what makes Surfrider so great. As long as our chapter network has a beating heart, we’ll continue to fight these battles to protect our coastal legacy.

But let’s be real. We can’t protect our coastal gems solely by playing defense.

The environmental threats of the 21st century demand a more strategic approach. Industries like oil and gas, offshore wind, sand mining, and aquaculture, are staking their claim to the ocean. How will we manage the cumulative impacts of this development? Can we protect our treasured marine ecosystems before they succumb to industrialization?

Surfrider is betting that the answer is yes. We are mobilizing our chapter network and the recreation community as a powerful stakeholder group in ocean planning efforts across the country. Under the framework of the National Ocean Policy, we are helping to develop state and regional plans that will protect the marine ecosystems and steer new development in the ocean to less sensitive areas.

For nearly a decade, Surfrider has represented coastal recreation users in ocean planning across the U.S. In the Mid-Atlantic, Northeast, and Washington State, we are working with government bodies and other stakeholders to finalize ocean plans by the end of this year. Surfrider’s goal for these ocean plans is both lofty and simple: to protect outstanding ocean and coastal areas before they become threatened by development.

In the Art of War, Sun Tzu writes that, “Victorious warriors win first, and then go to war.” In that spirit, Surfrider is embracing forward-thinking approaches to protect our legacy as recreational users. The strategy is two-fold. First, organize coastal users and the recreation industry as a powerful voice in the planning process. Second, apply the best scientific data on recreational uses and economic values to secure conservation gains from government ocean planning bodies.

If Surfrider does achieve this vision, the origins of success will be traced back to the rugged Pacific Northwest. Let’s go back a decade to the birth of Surfrider’s involvement in ocean planning – a time when the recreation community began to flex its muscle in this new policy arena.

A Movement Is Born

The year was 2007 and Oregon’s surfing community was on its heels. Nearly a dozen wave energy projects had been proposed off the Oregon coast, many of them in areas frequented by beach goers and other recreational users. Coastal communities were feeling the pressure of a new industry ready to develop offshore. From fishermen to hotel owners to local leaders, people on the coast were desperate for a voice in where future renewable energy projects would be located.

To help bring order to the chaos, the governor launched an ocean planning process. The idea was simple: identify the most important places in the ocean – both for humans and marine life – and let the energy companies pursue projects in less desirable areas. There was a catch, however; this wouldn’t just be a mad scramble among stakeholder interests (although that would be a big part of it). It would be a science-based process guided by the best information available.

And that’s when it became clear: Oregon’s recreation community needed to organize itself as a major player in ocean planning. Surfrider began outreach to hundreds of businesses and groups urging them to engage in the process. Sensing an opportunity to shape the future of the coast, surf shops, paddle clubs, tourism boards and recreation leaders all began providing input and urging other citizens to get involved.

Surfrider also launched a recreation study to collect data on beach going, surfing, diving, wildlife viewing and other activities. It’s one thing to know that coastal recreation is important, but entirely another to have credible science to convince decision-makers. As fishermen started breaking taboos by mapping their fishing grounds, Surfrider urged the coastal recreation community to do the same.

The study results painted a rich picture of coastal use in Oregon. Millions of people recreating along the state’s 363-mile coastline. Over $2.4 billion in annual economic impacts from hotel visits, dining, shopping, equipment rentals and other expenditures. The findings made waves among Oregon’s leaders and spotlighted coastal recreation and tourism as the dominant ocean industry in the state.

When Oregon completed its Territorial Sea Plan in 2013, it rewarded the many communities, stakeholders and citizens that engaged in the public process. The plan protects important recreational areas, marine habitats and fishing grounds in state waters. It also designates opportunity zones for wave energy projects along the coast, providing a win-win for ecosystem protection and economic development.

Support for the National Ocean Policy

Oregon’s ocean planning success is part of a larger revolution in ocean management taking place across the country. In July of 2010, President Barack Obama established the National Ocean Policy based on the findings of the bipartisan U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy. The policy directs federal agencies to work with states, tribes, stakeholders and the public to “protect and restore our ocean, coasts, and Great Lakes”.

A key element of the policy is regional ocean planning to address the many competing uses of our nation’s ocean waters. Across the country, regions and states are moving forward with creating plans to ensure that future ocean development minimizes impacts to the marine ecosystem and existing uses. 

Surfrider actively supports the National Ocean Policy by advocating for legislation and funding from Congress, while defending the policy from partisan attacks. Meanwhile, our chapters and staff are helping to shape ocean plans across the country in collaboration with other recreational stakeholders.

Through regular outreach to industry leaders, Surfrider is organizing the recreation and tourism community into a political powerhouse. Our growing influence was on display this February when a Surfrider delegation visited the White House to deliver a surfboard and a thousand business signatures in support of the National Ocean Policy and opposition to offshore drilling in the Atlantic.

Surfrider has now completed four coastal recreation mapping studies covering 12 U.S. states. This scientific information, documenting millions of coastal users and billions of dollars in expenditures in each region, is now being used in the Mid-Atlantic, Northeast, and Washington State to influence ocean planning.

Surfrider looks forward to achieving strong conservation outcomes from ocean planning in 2016. To learn more about how you can add your support, please visit our campaign page.