"National Surfing Reserves, World Surfing Reserves…feel-good stuff, no doubt about it. The plaques, the local histories, the opening ceremonies...They don’t have any real force in law, and as a result, the sceptics among us have often wondered if the real effect of surfing reserves has been on local tourism and real estate businesses, rather than on the well-being of actual surfers."
The words aren’t mine, I hasten to say. They’re from my journalistic colleague Nick Carroll, who has been one of the surfing reserves movement’s most vocal critics since it began to gather steam a decade or so ago. I’m pretty much on the other side of the fence, particularly since becoming founding chair of Noosa National Surfing Reserve five years ago, and more recently president of Noosa World Surfing Reserve. But that doesn’t mean that I don’t pause to consider what surfing reserves are actually for, and whether we’re any good at it.
Two years ago, writing on Coastalwatch, Nick judged the effectiveness of surfing reserves, I think quite unfairly, by their failure to do anything about the proliferation of sharks in some designated reserves and PWC abuse during swell events in others. There are no easy solutions to issues of the balance of marine ecology or the behaviour of wave-hungry surfers, but at the very least surfing reserves are creating a forum for discussion of these any many other issues that are becoming critical for the surfing community.
Nick may have softened his view of the reserve movement since then, but his voice has been but one of many that has openly challenged the function of a surfing reserve, going back to the controversial creation of the very first, Bells Beach, in 1973. Here in Noosa, when the points are pumping and you can’t get anywhere near them through the gridlock, I too sometimes wonder about the wisdom of constantly telling the world that you are among the great surf breaks of the world.
Of course, there is so much more to the concept than that, but I still need reassurance, as we work our way through the creation of a stewardship plan prior to Noosa’s dedication as the 10th World Surfing Reserve next February, so I took advantage of a recent trip to California to visit the global headquarters of World Surfing Reserves and the Save The Waves Coalition in picturesque Davenport, California (population 408), about 20 kilometres north of the 4th World Surfing Reserve of Santa Cruz.
Here I settled into the boardroom of a converted 1940s fruit juice factory clinging to a cliff above a surf-rich coast to talk to Executive Director Nik Strong-Cvetich and conservation programs manager Trent Hodges about the past, present and future of the World Surfing Reserves concept.
Nik Strong-Cvetich, Phil Jarratt, and Trent Hodges in conference, Davenport
Phil: Perhaps we could start with a potted history of how World Surfing Reserves came about and what its role is?
Nik: It started officially in 2009 with the idea that the world’s greatest and most environmentally significant surfing breaks could be destroyed unless communities got behind protecting them. In fact, we identified quite a few that had already been destroyed. Our mission more or less came from a quote from (Patagonia founder) Yvon Chouinard, which was along the lines of, we have all these parks like Yosemite protecting great rock-climbing areas, but we don’t have the same thing around surf breaks, which are just as important as the great granite walls of Yosemite. That statement alone jump-started a lot of ideas among organizations like Save The Waves, National Surfing Reserves Australia and the International Surfing Association, but as time went on it was Save The Waves that took on the major role in creating and managing these reserves, with of course a lot of input from the greater surfing world. Now WSR is administered by Save The Waves but it is in some ways much bigger.
Phil: So the primary objective of World Surfing Reserves is the protection of the great surf breaks of the world?
Nik: Correct, but we’ve been thinking a lot about, what are you actually protecting when you’re protecting a surf break? There are a lot of elements, from the geophysical – the bathymetry of the ocean floor that makes the wave break – to the biological – the plants and animals that live in that environment and depend on it – and there’s the socio-economic component – the people whose wellbeing, culture and economy all depend on these places. When we talk about protecting a surf break, we’re actually talking about protecting all of these things. And in most of the places we think of as great surf breaks, a unique culture has sprung up around it, and in many ways that is the most important thing to protect.
Phil: Since we in Noosa began to campaign to become a World Surfing Reserve, I’ve been asked countless times whether a World Surfing Reserve is so designated because it is under threat or needs fixing, or can it also be an exemplar of best practice?
Nik: I think it’s both really, and one of the ways that our network can flourish is through the lessons that can be learnt from one place and used in another. We don’t want any of our WSRs to feel that they are working in a vacuum when it comes to protecting their breaks. When a place becomes a World Surfing Reserve, the collective experience behind us should help make each WSR better, otherwise we’re just handing out plaques.
Trent: No matter how protected you think a surf area may be, there are always new threats popping up, whether it’s climate change or a local pollution issue. This is where the stewardship component is so important, in continually monitoring ongoing situations so that they can be addressed before it’s too late.
Phil: Another area I get asked about a lot is what power a World Surfing Reserve will have to protect or change things. The answer in Noosa is that our power comes from our ability to create awareness of the surfing assets we have and to influence people and governments to protect them. But on a global scale, does WSR have the power to change things?
Nik: Here in Davenport what you see is a small group of people working hard to protect surf breaks, but everything we do is in coalition with another group or groups on the ground in the various locations. In almost every instance, it’s the same routine. Get the right people around the table, organize them and then focus on what are the real issues and objectives. In that way we punch way above our weight because we have the organizational skills and the network of people and organizations that can help us get things done. Basically, the model is that we will bring skills, resources and tools to a situation that has been identified by the people who are on the ground. So in Punta de Lobos, Chile, for example, where the situation was that the land surrounding the break had been sold for intensive development, we didn’t go in and buy the land back ourselves, but we worked with all of the stakeholders on the ground to come up with a plan and then we identified the source of outside money that could make it happen.
Punta de Lobos (Photo: Nicolas Recordon/WSR)
Phil: Can you run me through your key performance indicators?
Nik: Well, we’ve been working a lot lately on measuring outcomes. We want to know stuff like how many surf breaks are we actually protecting, either through branding them WSRs or through helping reduce threats, and we want to know how many people we’ve engaged in that process around the world, how many partnerships we’ve created. In short, how much WSR is helping to create change.
Phil: What would you rate as your greatest successes?
Nik: Punta de Lobos would have to be right up there. And in the early days we were involved in stopping some bad things from happening. We try to do that the least amount because it’s expensive and challenging and you usually lose, but we had a couple of wins in the early days, like stopping a gnarly project in Madeira that would have completely destroyed a surf spot. In Santa Cruz we’ve been instrumental in improving the water quality significantly, in Australia we worked successfully with the Gold Coast WSR to help stop a cruise ship terminal destroying the wave at Kirra. When the Gold Coast mayor came out and said there would be no cruise ship on the southern Gold Coast, that was kind of a moment you live for, along with all the people on the ground who had fought against it. We’ve also had successes in Baja California, getting the first state park approved through the WSR process, and reducing the pollution threat from trash heaps in that area.
Going back to your question about power to change things, in Peru the creation of the Huanchaco World Surfing Reserve got coupled with national protective legislation known as the Law of the Breakers. This had the immediate effect of stopping a proposal to build sixteen jetties to counter beach erosion, a proposal that would have destroyed 1500 years of beach culture and severely damaged the local economy.
Phil: But what about the erosion? It seems that protection of surf breaks and protection of the bigger environmental picture is not always on the same side of the fence.
Nik: In that case the erosion had been caused by a major port development to the south, so there wasn’t a lot that could be done, although because it was now part of the WSR we were able to stop the port dumping trash in the surf breaks.
Phil: Trent, as in the case we’ve just discussed, often when it comes to solving problems, whether they’re environmental or economic, many people seem to regard surf breaks as dispensable in that process. How do you change that perception?
Trent: A few different ways, but perhaps the most important is recognition of the economic value of the surf break as a tourism driver, as we proved to local businesses at Punta de Lobos, that this is not just about the protection of some one’s selfish enjoyment. And along with that is the understanding that this is not extractive revenue. Beyond the intrinsic values that we as surfers see, you have to demonstrate the economic benefit of protecting the break, but we also try to make people see the human values, the benefits to the community of retaining something of beauty.
Phil: We’ve talked about the successes, now what about the epic fails? Have there been any?
Nik: To be honest, yes there have. Before my day, with the first World Surfing Reserve in Malibu, it was a new concept and there was perhaps a lack of understanding about what was required, in terms of the environment and the surfing community, and WSR at that point didn’t have the tools or the maturity to sort those out. It didn’t have the ability to act on the very divisive issue of the Malibu Lagoon restoration of water quality. So our brand suffered as a result and we are still atoning for that. I think also in Manly in Australia we’ve failed to go back and help in the ongoing issues that it faces, rather than just having it listed on our website. Those are two WSRs where we could have done better, but it’s an evolutionary process.
Phil: Finally, how much is too much of a good thing? In other words, what is the optimum number of World Surfing Reserves before you suffer brand dilution?
Nik: I think the brand is very important, and keeping it an exclusive club is important to the integrity of each WSR. But how many that is, I’m not sure. Our current goal is 15 by 2025, in keeping with one approval a year, but that is not in keeping with demand. We have nine letters of intent for next year, and only one will be selected. And there are also several issues with areas that are politically difficult. For example, the North Shore of Oahu, the reef system of Tavarua Island, Fiji, and others. There’s kind of a rule of thumb, the better the surf, the more political it gets. We try not to go where we haven’t been invited, even when we’ve been invited by one section of the community but not another. Uluwatu, Bali is a good example of that, as is Jeffreys Bay in South Africa.
Trent: As a result of issues like that, we’re now paying special attention to the questions of who are the local groups who have a vested interest and how involved are they? We need to know that everyone is after the same outcomes before we get involved.
Phil:Okay, so you won’t put a ceiling on it?
Nik: 15 by 2025, but our bigger meta-goal is to protect 1000 waves by 2025 through a combination of WSRs, surf-protective networks and local stewardship programs. Right now, we’re protecting about 130, so it scares the shit out of me! But it’s a matter of scale. We won’t change the dynamic of World Surfing Reserves but we can work on a smaller scale with many other places to put in place protective mechanisms. No one knows for sure, but we think there are around 5000 known surf breaks in the world. If we can protect 20% of them by 2025, we will have done well.
// PHIL JARRATT