Bringing the Ocean to Society
17 Jul 2017
A DEEPER LOOK: From fishermen villages to surf cities
How wave sports are changing the reality of many coastal towns around the world’s coasts.

Coastwatch Europe is a voluntary organisation which monitors the coastal and wetland environments of several European countries, campaigns for improvements to environmental policies and for the implementation of existing environmental legislation, and organises public information events and seminars.

On 6th July, EurOcean’s Science Officer Tiago Garcia attended a session of the 27th Coastwatch Portugal Seminar dedicated to the sustainability of coastal tourism. Three of the key-note speakers addressed the growing role that wave sports, such as surfing and bodyboarding, play in the life of many coastal locations around the world.

“Ericeira – a quiet town of 10,000 inhabitants loated 50 km northwest of Lisbon within the Mafra municipality - used to be a fishermen´s village known only in Portugal. Nowadays, it is a top surfing destination and the sons and daughters of fishermen are opening surf schools, surf camps, surf shops or becoming surfboard shapers. This industry seems to be much more appealing to them in terms of economy and livelihood and after the uncertainty caused by the decline of fisheries, the local economy is now improving” Hélder Sousa Filipe, Mayor of Mafra, reported.

Ericeira is just one example of how a maritime leisure activity can end up changing the local cultural heritage. In the case of wave sports, many similar cases can be found in virtually any swell-exposed coasts from Indonesia to Iceland, from Chile to Norway. The tiny charming Portuguese town facing the Atlantic also shows how the impact of wave sports can end up determining a few sectorial policies like nature conservation, spatial planning or tourism. In 2011 it became the second World Surfing Reserve, a global model that serves also to protect the key environmental, cultural, economic and community attributes of outstanding surfing areas.

The impact of wave sports can actually be even more visible. And measurable. Beachpedia estimated of the economic scale of the surfing industry, including travel, surf-branded clothing and the manufacture of surfboards, is on the order of $10 billion per year and reaches into most countries on the planet. While this is an impressive number, it is likely to significantly under-account for the total economic value of recreational surfing. A 2017 study estimated the worldwide value of good surfing waves to be $50 billion per year. Surfing represents a very profitable market, a growing industry, and a reason people move to coastal areas. Surfing plays a major part in the recreation and tourism strategies for many coastal locations. Any negative impact to the surfing amenity in these locations may have serious consequences for the resident surfing population, visitors to the area, the local surf industry and the entire local coastal economy.

Scientists are more and more interested in the phenomena. Surfline reports that a former professor - who has authored previous studies on the economic benefits of surfing - at Griffith University in Queensland, Australia, found that one single run of epic swells on the Gold Coast created a $20 million boost for local businesses. As reported by the Gold Coast Bulletin, 75,000 surfers visited that Australian coastal region during two months, each spending on average $25 to $40 per day.

Coming back to Europe, Mundaka, in the Basque Country of Spain, has been providing more than some of the longest barrels on offer in the Old Continent. According to another study, the long sand-bottom lefthander pointbreak is also the engine of the local economy. The overall economic impact of wave sports on the local economy reaches $4.5 million in the peak season and generates nearly 100 jobs in this quintessential Basque village of 2,000 inhabitants.

Recently Surfing England, as reported by Carve, has been officially recognised at the highest level becoming a National Governing Body. This means English surfing is now eligible to gain access to government funding and professional support, which has been closed for many years – an essential step at a critical time, as the sport continues to grow and it prepares for its Olympic debut in Tokyo 2020.

The wave sports lifestyle is intrinsically connected to the conservation of the ocean and shores around the world. The remarkable growth of the surfing industry has helped to kick-start diverse types of conservation projects and initiatives. In 1984, the Surfrider Foundation was created in California to promote the protection and enjoyment of the ocean, waves and beaches through a powerful activist network. They have not stopped and have even ended up inspiring similar movements all over the planet. 

Another example is Waves For Water. Since 2009, they have been working together with travelling wave hunters to provide access to clean water through the distribution of portable water filters, the digging and renovating of wells, and the construction of rainwater harvesting and storing systems in places where waves abound but groundwater is not accessible. 

Even the greatest surfer of all time, 11-time World Champion Kelly Slater, felt obliged to contribute to the ocean sustainability.

What clothes are we wearing and where are they coming from?

His response came in 2014 in the form of Outerknown a surf wear company dedicated to build better products by understanding the way consumption impacts the ocean and the world.

And in July 2017, a selection of World Surfing League athletes got involved with an ambitious new project between Corona and Parley for the Oceans, which aims to end marine plastic pollution.

"Before getting involved, I didn't realize just how much plastic was in the ocean, and on this planet" says Jordy Smith, South African professional surfer and current World No. 3.

Similar initiatives have been created or supported by surfers, the surfing industry and coastal municipalities. There is a general feeling about giving back to the ocean some of the fascinating moments it has been providing since the Polynesians start sliding down the surface of waves centuries ago. Something that can only help to reverse the scenario reported by the World Economic Forum and Ellen MacArthur Foundation, that if the current pollution trend continues, the oceans will contain more plastic than fish by 2050.

The sustainability of coastal tourism encompasses this and many other activities as the H2020 MARINA project, in which Eurocean participates, has been addressing. In 2017, in addition to 14 national workshops,  four dedicated international workshops already took place in different cities of Europe. And there are more on the way. Make sure you do not lose the next wave and register on the MARINA platform and follow the project’s Facebook and Twitter.