Assistant Editor, CoastalWatch
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The Inertia

Around the world, coastlines are exposed to increasing pressure from beachside homemakers, melting icebergs and change in climate, leaving the future of many of the world’s iconic breaks in doubt. Last month, representatives from 20 coastal nations got together at the Global Wave Conference in Biarritz and San Sebastian to define the economic value of waves, the major threats and strategies for protection. As Biarritz and San Sebastian in the Basque Country become more populated, they face increasing pressures from pollution and development.

The obvious concern from surfers is supported by studies on the economic value of surf breaks. Californian surf break Trestles was recently delivered from plans for a six-lane toll road to be built through San Onofre State Beach Park. Though the threat to Trestles was most significant to surfers, the estimated risked economic value to San Clemente, was between $10-55 million per year.

Australian surfer Brad Farmer attended the conference to share his convictions on the subject. With an extensive background in political and environmental activism, he was instrumental in creating organizations to represent surfers in the political landscape. We caught up with Brad on a slow train from Biarritz to Toulouse, meditating a brighter future for surfers across the planet.

Tell us about the places the conference were held and the significance of the conference being held there…


The conference was held in the Basque region, on the border of France and Spain at Biarritz and San Sebastian. Both surf spots have a suite of popular wave breaks along an urbanized coast. Like many surf spots in Europe, they are threatened by pollution and development predominantly, largely because the concerns of surfers are not taken seriously enough and the economic value of waves are not fully or favorably factored in decision making.

Representatives shared knowledge from around the world. What ideas were explored?

Most speakers looked at local and global threats to waves and surfing environments over the years. Perspectives from surfers, activists, academics, historians and naturalists from Canary Islands to Durban, Australia and NZ to Argentina, Cornwall to Baja, California.

Are threatened waves overseas similar to the threats on the Australian coast?

No. Europe and USA particularly, face massive challenges – for example Mundaka and Trestles. While well driven campaigns exist, [but] most surfing nations have yet to tell their story to decision-makers clearly enough to stop threats.

Global surfers continue to belong to a fringe group percentage wise. Until, “surfers” become “everyone and anyone who uses the surf zone for recreation” and thereby have economic, social and political leverage, nations outside Australia will remain isolated from meaningful inclusion when waves and surf environments are threatened, affected, restricted or destroyed. Australian surfers enjoy a unique and powerful position in planning, with instruments such as National Surfing Reserves. Australia is the first nation to include “surfers” and “surfing” in law, through National Surfing Reserves. We lead the world in ideas and programs to conserve surfing environments.

What ideas were identified to protect the coastlines or waves?

Only two actually; National and World Surfing Reserves. Although many years in the development, 20 years in Australia, and only six years in action – National Surfing Reserves has become the primary template to ensure sites have the best chance of protection, many protected via legislation.

National Surfing Reserves are now on a national scale in Australia and that NSR model is going global to a number of nations who want to replicate it. Hawaii already has implemented protection has through the Governor Lingle’s Executive Order and Fred Hemming’s Senate Bill 2426. New Zealand is also about to put through an NSR.

World Surfing Reserves are for the really primo ‘iconic’ world class breaks – but that is symbolic only. Soon to be developed in Australia, Regional Surfing Reserves will ensure that what might be ‘average’ breaks, but special locally, also get recognized maybe through local government, and thereby ensuring a better chance of the surf zone not being tampered with.

Another major theme was the concept of ‘Sovereignty’. Surfers, being the logical custodians and highest user group of waves, must now claim sovereignty over their territory, as other cultures in history have.

After the GWC, there was a meeting in Biarritz for all the major speakers and stakeholders and we signed an historic Memorandum of Understanding to form an ‘International Surfing Communities Commission’ for the conservation of surf spots, waves and surfing culture at a regional, national and international level and to work together.

Only 1% of surfers compete so the national governing bodies are not addressing adequately these outlined. Additionally, the budget focus of global surf brands remains in competitions and marketing. Projects like this are left up to volunteerism, which fortunately is strong in surfing culture, particularly, but not solely, in Australia. Something has to give. If not us, who? If not now, when? 2012 onwards is our window of opportunity to secure surfers’ rights for generations to come.

“I hope to invite Kelly Slater to lead such a delegation in the role of an elder statesman for our culture; his intelligence and broad understanding of global issues is as impressive as his surfing,” says Brad.

Read more from Bridget on CoastalWatch.

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