Sean Doherty: New swell rising
Sean Doherty needs no introduction to a surfing audience, but courtesy says I've gotta provide one anyway. This'll be short.
Sean currently works at Patagonia, but other feathers in his bow include longtime editor of Tracks, longtime contributor to Surfing World, Coastalwatch, and Surfer, biographer of MP, documenter of every CT contest, and a recent thorn in the side of coastal developers.
The latter role, where he steered the Fight for the Bight campaign to an improbable victory, has led to the position of Chairman at Surfrider Foundation.
Sean sat down with Swellnet to lay out his vision.
Swellnet: Over the last 24 hours, the news has come out that you're the new Chair of Surfrider Foundation.
Sean Doherty: It still seems weird.
You're surprised. I'm surprised. I'm sure a lot of people are. Surfrider Foundation Australia has been around for almost thirty years, but for the last two decades it's been humming along in the background. Meanwhile, you've been making a lot of noise with recent campaigns, namely the Fight for the Bight. Can you tell us how the union arose?
Well, it organically flowed on from the Bight campaign. My take on that campaign was that we managed to mobilise all these people around the country, they turned up because they supported this thing. To me, that was the win. And it ended up...well, we got the cherry on the cake anyway; they pulled out.
So I looked at that, and I reasoned to myself, the only possible loss was if all of that momentum and all of that passion, or whatever you want call it, just went away and never came back again.
Once we realised we were onto something, and that there really was something there, we started thinking towards the long game and how we could keep that momentum going.
Were you eyeing off Surfrider Foundation, or did you consider starting up another organisation?
To be honest, yeah, we did. Surfrider is an established entity; you've got all the history and it comes with a lot of gravity. But it also comes with internal politics - the things you can and can't do. You kind of got to march in step a little bit, which is fair enough, they've built that entity up over a lot of campaigns and a lot of years.
At one point, I kind of reasoned, especially dealing with that Bight thing, that we might need something more radical. The fulcrum in it was the political angle. Surfrider is billed as apolitical, so you kind of stick to the issues with it, but I think in saying that I feel really positive that Surfrider's the right framework for all this post-Bight momentum to go into. And it'll do a lot of good.
What changes will we expect to see within Surfrider then?
I think Surfrider's activities in the last couple of decades have been emblematic of where surfers themselves have been. We've just had a couple of good surfing decades. We've had easy travel, and if you look at the coast we've got here and especially if you travel and see what it's like everywhere else, mate, we're in the land of milk and honey. There've been flashpoints occasionally where these egregious things will pop up, but on the whole, there hasn't been a lot to push back against. And I think that's kind of reflected with Surfrider, particularly over the last decade, really focusing on community stuff. A lot of stuff around beach cleanups, plastics.
Meanwhile, the big stuff has ticked away silently in the background. And that's the nature of what that stuff is. The big stuff like these Bight developments and all these gas developments, it all happens silently and that's the nature of the system. They're just crafty and really good at doing it that way. But I think the Bight was the catalyst for people realising that it wasn't just the Bight. That there's all this other stuff happening in the background that we don't even know about.
That was the real tipping point for me. When people got involved in that campaign and they actually went into it and there were a couple of points in it where they were forced to become experts in deep water oil drilling, overnight. Like that submission point to NOPSEMA, where people had to actually read the EP and put a submission in on it. It was a 1500 page thing that is so dense and it's not designed to be understood by punters.
But we got 30,000 people to do it. They learnt a bit about the process of drilling, but they also learnt about the economics, then they learnt about the politics of it. And at every stage people were just going, "How the fuck is this happening? There's a huge risk to the coast and nothing in it for us?"
What other campaigns are you eyeing off?
Well, we're pretty ambitious. I won't lie there. All along we've been looking at this PEP 11 thing. I think there's a straight line between the Bight and PEP 11 - which is a potential gas field between Newcastle and Sydney. It's pretty much the whole coast between Newcastle and Sydney.
In terms of development, there's a prospector out there having a look and they've been seismic testing that for quite a while, and pre-COVID they were looking at going into development. They skipped over a 3D seismic test. They skipped over a seismic test and just wanted to jump straight into drilling. Just said, 'Well we're going to drill.'
The field they're looking at drilling is off Swansea Belmont. That to me is pretty emblematic of Australia, right there. That these guys are so brazen that they're willing to plant a gas rig off the most populated coast in the country, when you've got 20,000 k's of coast and gas fields everywhere else.
Can you oppose these sort of projects and remain apolitical?
Oh, I think you can. I think for a group like Surfrider, we just work on the issue. The politics will flow on from it. Obviously, something like this PEP 11 field, there's obviously a bunch of electorates that are directly affected by it. So creating some political leverage there probably won't be real hard. So all we've got to do as Surfrider is just raise the profile of the issue. Just let people know.
What about the complexities? In the early nineties, Surfrider focussed on sewage outfalls, which is a no brainer - surfers are clearly going to be opposed to them. Yet if you oppose oil fields, it raises questions about energy use. Or if you do something like oppose housing subdivisions, such as Manyana, it raises questions about population levels. You're moving into more complex areas. How are you going to navigate that?
Mate, I reckon people are ready to have that conversation. Look at the old characterisation of surfers, say in the seventies, which was the last time we demonstrated enmasse, like really activated around environmental issues, but surfers were easily dismissed as just dumb, and that they weren't involved.
But today? The demography of surfers has changed. There're people from different walks of life, some are scientists, or just people that understand the issues. The Bight thing really highlighted this. People understood the issue and took the time, and that's what really cracked that issue open. People taking the time to really understand what was at stake environmentally, politically, economically, and how none of it made sense. The only people it made sense for were the people making money out of it.
I think you've got a crew that are smart, and they're able to understand big, complex issues. They know there are options for all this stuff already out there. Personally, I really want to work on advocacy for those ideas. I don't want to be the guy that just says no to everything because I think we need to champion new ideas as well.
Let's talk about the structure within Surfrider. You're going to step on board. You're obviously very enthusiastic about it, but have you got a team of people below you?
Mate, we're doing it on the fly a little bit, to be honest, but when I took this role on I made it conditional that Damo came along.
That's Damien Cole?
Damien Cole, yep.
He's got some form on the board. Can you tell the readers about it?
Basically he was the heart and soul of the Bight campaign. He led the initial paddle out, the very first one here in Torquay at the start of last year, and kind of created a monster. And he's just this super charismatic guy, and obviously Maurice [Cole, Damien's dad] has spent forty years here doing all that campaign work to save Bells. That was Maurice's' thing. While Damo's brief is the whole lot. So once he got loose on this Bight campaign, there was no stopping him. He was just a force of nature. He's one of those guys, he's a Cole!
It's such a huge job getting started again on Surfrider. You need someone with a huge engine in the middle of it, and that's Damo.
He works through a political lens as well. He understands strategy: what works and what doesn't, and he's a leader. People love him and will follow him into battle.
You guys are a formidable duo, but it's still going to take paid up membership, is it not?
Pretty much. We need a base. We've talked about a lot of big issues, and we'd love to go big game hunting for a few of those, but the reality is that the bulk of the issues will be on a local level. They're going to be Manyanas. They're going to be the Margaret River development. They're going to be all this stuff that's really regional.
But what Surfrider nationally can do, is just bring a big base against that. And the more people we get in, the bigger the voice gets, the harder it gets to ignore, and the more help we can get to the local branches. Which is kind of one of my other goals, is to get new branches started around the country. There's a bunch of really active ones who've got a strong game. They've been doing it for a long time. But I think there's new areas on the coast that are opening up that could probably do with one.
That was the original model with a central office and the regional chapters around the country.
Yeah, I don't think that needs changing. I think the organisation really needs, essentially, to be a local organisation which has an umbrella national body that can come in and aggregate huge membership, big interest, and lend a big voice to help out these smaller regional issues. Because that's where it happens. It all happens locally, these developments.
We'll go after a couple of big ones that have more national ramifications, but at the end of the day, it's all going to happen in your Manyanas and Margaret Rivers, and we just need a framework that kind of helps on that front.
Surfrider's last great heyday was in the nineties. Are you looking to replicate that popularity, when surfers joined almost by default?
Yeah. It feels like it's an idea that's time has come around again. And it's probably cyclical. We've just had a couple of decades where self-interest has ruled - we've been off doing our own thing - and I think it's come to a point where it's flipped around.
During the early-to mid-nineties there was quite a lot of stuff to push back against, and I think people are realising it's happening again now. So yeah, it'll get a life of its own, which is what I'm hoping. We also want to capture a bit of that spirit of the Bight protests, that they're not just angry protests. I think the real power in Surfrider is a celebration of what the coast is.
At the Bight protests, half the people that turned up were young families. So we became really hard targets to hit because politicians can't dismiss people like that. The other aspect is that our national identity is so linked to the beach and beach culture, and when that gets turned back on the people in charge, it becomes really hard for them to write us off. After all, they've traded on it for so long.
Surfrider, potentially, has a really powerful bloc. If they get mobilised and get a united voice, it'll be really hard to ignore.
Social media. People blame it for so many of our ills, but it does open up conversations, and you can also reach a whole lot of people very quickly. Is that part of your strategy?
Yeah, I think so. That was another takeaway from the Bight too. It goes back to the fact that so much of this stuff happens in the dark. All these approvals, all these developments, it's all kept out of the public eye. It's designed that way. So you don't really need to put out this raging polemic about how bad is this. All you've got to do is shine a light on it and people immediately go, "Whoa, hang on. What's happening here?"
If I can interrupt, that's what I found fascinating through the bushfire summer. Some of the things that you exposed via Instagram had me wondering, "Why don't we know about this? Why aren't newspapers reporting on it?"
Yeah, totally. I would use the mainstream media generally, and the uselessness of it, and how it's opened up a huge vacuum for people just putting stuff out there. There's independent media, it's doing a really good job, and that's the news I tap into. You kind of really do shine a light and provide some accountability to the people in charge and the people who are trying to turn a buck at the expense of the coast.
So it's...yeah, it's illuminating on one hand, and it's shocking on the other. Thing is though, you don't need to drive that traditional adversarial model of it's us versus them. All we need to do is roll out the state of play. Put stuff out there that people don't know, and that alone is enough for people to really take an interest, because we're being kept in the dark on so much news.
Well, congratulations Sean, I look forward to seeing what you and Damo come up with in the coming months.