Ocean Protection, Marine Spatial Planning, Ocean Energy, Updates, Ocean Planning
October 27 2015

The Golden Age of Coastal Mapping

by Pete Stauffer

This week Surfrider Foundation and its partners released the Northeast Coastal Recreation Use Study. The study documents the enormous popularity of activities such as beach going, surfing, and wildlife viewing, as well as the major economic benefits they provide. The Northeast is the fourth region that Surfrider has completed such a study, joining the Mid-Atlantic, Washington State, and Oregon. We look back at the history of how these efforts started and how they're helping to shape the future of coastal management.


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 surfers and other recreational users. Entire communities, in fact, were feeling the heat of a new industry breathing down their necks. From fishermen to hotel owners to community leaders, people on the coast were desperate for a voice in how their ocean might be developed.

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 that could be assembled.

And that’s when it became clear: the recreational community needed real data to protect its interests. 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, we realized the coastal recreation sector would need to do the same. So with the support of government agencies and some timely grant funding, Surfrider quickly assembled a study on recreational use on the Oregon coast.  The resulting products – geospatial data (i.e., maps) and an economic report - were then included in the ocean planning process.

After several years and countless public meetings, the State of Oregon completed an ocean plan for its territorial sea. The plan protects numerous recreational areas, including Oregon’s popular surf spots, while also creating opportunities for renewable energy development. Following this success, Surfrider launched similar recreation studies in Washington State, the Mid-Atlantic, and the Northeast. The data collected is now being used to inform ocean plans for these regions, which are all scheduled for completion by the end of 2016.


The recreation mapping studies confirmed through science what we already knew: coastal recreation is immensely popular and generates enormous economic benefits. Here are a few of the big take-aways.

1) Coastal recreation occurs everywhere. This is not an exaggeration. If there’s a patch of coastline that’s even remotely accessible, someone is using it for recreation. However, the intensity of use along the coast is not uniform. Certain areas are exceedingly popular, rendering them recreation “hot spots” that must be protected for present and future generations.

2) Recreation users are diverse and so are their activities. Recreational users straddle all demographics, including age, wealth, and ethnicity. Furthermore, these millions of users participate in a wide range of activities, including beach going, surfing, kayaking, bird watching, SCUBA diving, paddle boarding, and many more.  

3) Coastal recreation generates billions for local economies. Coastal recreation generates major economic benefits through trip-related expenditures such as hotel visits, dining, shopping, and equipment rentals. For example, in Oregon alone, coastal visitation accounted for 2.4 billion dollars in expenditures in 2010.


The coastal recreation community has come a long way! We now have scientific data for twelve U.S. states that can be used to identify and protect key recreational areas on the coast. This includes both geospatial data that depict human use patterns, as well as economic information that quantifies the benefits to communities.

Moreover, the data demonstrate that coastal recreation is the dominant ocean sector, both in terms of public participation and the billions of dollars generated. In fact, these economic values dwarf those of oil and gas, commercial fishing, and other sectors by a wide margin. This provides the recreation community with enormous leverage to exercise in decisions affecting the ocean and coast.  

Finally, the studies provided an unexpected benefit: the opportunity to organize the coastal recreation industry as a political force. To support data collection, hundreds of businesses and groups helped conduct outreach to recreational users. Such broad partipation from our community is the key ingredient for us to grow as a powerful voice in coastal management.


Over the coming year, Surfrider and its partners will apply the study results to influence ocean planning efforts in the Mid-Atlantic, Northeast, and Washington State. As with Oregon, our goal is to secure lasting protections for recreational areas on the coast.

We also are using the studies to advance other advocacy work. Whether it’s fighting offshore drilling, protecting beach access, or solving water quality issues, the study results provide powerful economic and sociocultural arguments for why we need to protect our coastal resources.

Finally, we are exploring opportunities to conduct similar recreation studies in other regions such as the South Atlantic, California, and the Pacific Islands. Stay tuned!

To visit Surfrider’s Recreation Study page: click here

To visit Surfrider’s Ocean Protection page: click here