What is a Surfing Reserve and why should surfers care about them?
<i>By Neil Lazarow</i>
I guess the first question we might like to ask ourselves is ‘what is surfing and who is a surfer?’ I’m going to start with Kelly’s definition from 1973 “Surfing is the art of riding waves, usually in the ocean. It may be accomplished with the use of equipment such as a large or small surfboard, a canoe, shallow drift sailboat, catamaran or kayak, or with the body alone.” Things have definitely changed a little since then. Today many of us tend to think less of sailboats and catamarans as being surfers but have widened the definition to include the various motorised craft used for tow-in surfing. It goes without saying that the definitions of what is surfing and who is a surfer will probably be heavily argued over. Nevertheless, you get the picture.
There can be no doubt that the value of surfing to society and the imprint of surfing on our lives and lifestyles has grown significantly over the past three to four decades. This combined with the significant growth in participation and rising popularity of surfing in many countries means that the importance of the socio-economic value of surfing to various regions cannot be understated. Surfing today represents a very profitable market, an increasing growth industry and plays a major part in the tourism strategies for many coastal locations in Australia and overseas. It is also variously described as a sport, a pastime, a religion, a spiritual communion with nature and a way of life.
More than this, surfing brings something else to communities and people. It links generations, it brings people together and it provides an avenue for a fun outdoors based physical activity. Little has actually been written or documented about the ‘community good’ or value to ‘civil society’ that surfers and surfing can bring to communities and locales.
What motivates surfers?
A number of studies have been undertaken into aspects of leisure and motivation as it relates to surfing and there are three concepts that are worth mentioning. The first is the ‘ritual’ potential of surfing, which in many ways helps us to better understand the motivation and passionate commitment that both locals and tourists exude in the pursuit of their favourite coastal activity. The second concept is that of ‘serious leisure’ a term used to describe the intense level of personal involvement and high levels of technical competence:
“Serious leisure can be defined as the systematic pursuit of an amateur, hobbyist, or volunteer activity that is sufficiently substantial and interesting for the participant to find a career there in the acquisition and expression of its special skills and knowledge (Stebbins).”
The third concept worth discussing is that of ‘spaces’. Preston-Whyte, in a study of surfers in Durban, argues that for all surfers, surfing space is constructed around the idea of a surfbreak and the material environment must therefore be included in our understanding of surfing. This is a critical point and the one on which the nature-society constructs around the visions for ‘sustainability’ must surely rest. Surfers’ sensory construction of the (surfing) world is gained through direct contact with the ocean and the beach and the elements such as waves, wind, tides, currents and weather – and the local surfbreak is fundamental to all of this.
Miller et al write that the coastal zone is a scarce resource prized not only by those who engage in and profit by tourism, but also by those who live and work nearby but whose lifestyles and lives do not rely on the tourism industry. Lanagan suggests that at the start of the third millennium, the commodification of surfing has transferred the symbolic ownership of the sport from surfers to ‘surfing capital’. By surfing capital, Lanagan means the major global surfwear producers. If it was not disturbing enough for many for their culture to be labeled a sport, the transfer of ownership from the collective to the private may be too much to bear. While Lanagan does a remarkable task of describing the evolution of surfing, the growth and domination of a few major clothing, apparel (and surf equipment) companies and the massive role these companies now have in re-packaging a ‘commodified lifestyle’ (and the cunning marketing strategy that polarizes the modern surfer into a free/soul surfer or a competitive junkie) that has been sold and resold to the wider society, he does not really tackle the issues of surfing (material) space and serious leisure as described earlier in this paper. The idea that ‘surfing capital’, the very essence of surfing, has been transferred from local communities to international companies whose business interests centre more on the commodity of surfwear than surfing capital simply doesn’t hold up under this type of scrutiny. While many may be critical of the direction that surfwear companies have taken surfing, there can be no doubt that for the most part ‘surfing capital’ rests with local communities.
The issue becomes even more complex when we examine the major urban surfing populations. Doug Booth writes that “not so long ago surfers escaped the stresses of industrial life at local urban beaches where they could share an intimate relationship with nature. Today, instead of escaping into nature they immerse themselves in greasy, foul-smelling waters that assault and jolt their senses and frequently give them ear, eye and throat infections…. Rather than being a place at which to reflect, contemplate and relax, the beach is just another industrial urban site where surfers release aggression and express profanity, nihilism and general social dissatisfaction.” Will the surfwear companies continue to reinvent themselves to make their products and lifestyles relevant to this 'pissed off' majority? Is it any wonder then that many of our modern surfing heroes, raised on a diet of consume or be consumed have lost control of surfing's direction. Like much of western society, we could do well by turning to some of our elders and asking for advice. This of course presents another set of complex questions once we ask (and we do need to ask) ‘who speaks for surfing?’
How do you measure surf quality?
In the face of an ever-increasing litany of human induced threats such as pollution, population growth, inappropriate development, natural climate variability and
the potential and realised impacts of human induced climate change it is more than timely to ask ‘what threats are there to surf breaks (surfing capital)?’ and what can be done to mitigate these threats, be they real or perceived. Surf quality drives serious leisure aspirants and it is the very basis upon which surfing capital, as a marginalized leisure activity in the 1950s and 1960s through to todays worldwide participation of over 20 million people in an activity worth many billions of dollars, was built. Simply put, without quality surf, surfing has no capital. Here is one way we might define surf quality:
Wave quality - Wave quality may be construed by an outsider to the surfing community as being highly subjective as it varies from location to location. This apparent subjectivity, however, may rather be interpreted as the dominant local view of how the wave generally breaks and the aspects best ascribed to producing a wave that performs this way. The concept of beauty and form rather than being subjective, become entirely objective and assessable. Wave quality may be positively or negatively impacted upon by both natural events and human interventions.
Wave frequency - Wave frequency refers to the frequency of a ‘surfable’ wave at a particular location. Wave frequency can be described in terms of dominant wind and swell patterns that affect the swell period and therefore the frequency of waves to a particular location. Of significance however, is the attribute of ‘surfing’ to the concept of wave frequency. Wave frequency then refers to the number of surfable waves at a particular location and the impact than both natural events and human intervention may have in these locales.
Surfer safety - Surfer safety is generally described in two parts. Firstly, the environmental or biophysical conditions that may mitigate against a surfers physical health such as water quality which may lead to ear, nose, throat or intestinal illnesses, suitability to prevailing conditions and overcrowding which may lead to physical injury, for example, as a result of being struck accidentally by a board, or the challenge and risks associated with surfing a more challenging break (eg a reef break). Secondly, surfer safety can be described by what Glenn Hening (pers. Comms. 2004) describes as the eco-psychological conditions surrounding the surfing experience such as surf rage, aggressiveness, and vandalism on the one hand and mentoring, sharing, physical activity, joy and laughter on the other hand.
To understand what a good wave is and what good conditions for waves are implies the need for both an understanding of what good waves are generally (incorporating concepts such as wave height, wedge and peel angle, topography), what constitutes good waves at a specific location and also an understanding of the surfing experience at specific locales. While there is probably significant consensus amongst surfers about the top five to ten best waves in the world, it is clear that the surfing experience is much more than just a search for perfect waves. Good work has been undertaken on the physical processes component by people such as Kerry Black. More recently, surf-scholars such as Nick Corne from the UK and Brad Scarfe from New Zealand have put their minds to this issue which has resulted in some interesting work being undertaken.
How can surf quality be altered?
Surf quality, which includes the surfing experience can be altered in a number of different ways, but essentially they deal with supply and demand, both of which can be fixed or manipulated. Broadly speaking, there are four ways to do this: education; culture, regulation / legislation; and modifications to the resource base.
Education – Education strategies can include codes of conduct, signage, education strategies. Self-regulation and lore and may be used to increase awareness and modify surfers’ behaviour. The Tribal Law plaques in south-west WA, the Surfrider Foundation Surfriders Code and Surfrider’s Code signs in Byron Bay are good examples of education programs being used to promote the ‘rules’ of surfing, but also to make people aware of the risks to themselves and others from surfing and to modify their behaviour accordingly.
Culture – Cultural strategies are often used in conjunction with education strategies and acknowledgement that the surfbreak has a significant cultural association with the local Indigenous or European community may also be used to increase awareness, modify surfers’ behaviour or attitude out in the water or have some impact on the way a place is managed. The Spirit of Surfing tablets at Bells Beach, the Tribal Law plaques in south-west WA and the declaration of Maroubra Beach as a non-gazetted National Surfing Reserve (in 2006) are three examples of these strategies in place.
Regulation / Legislation – There are a number of direct and indirect means of using legislation or regulation to alter surf quality and the surfing experience. Indirectly, parking fees (eg Bondi Beach), access fees (eg surfbreaks in national parks, some beaches in New Jersey) or a reduction in access points may discourage or limit users. Directly, management plans, regulations/by-laws or even legislation may limit the number of competition days for a particular break, may limit the number of users, attempt to separate swimmers from boardriders or boardriders from motorised craft or prohibit the use of a break by recreational surfers during a competition.
The Bells Beach Surfing Recreation Reserve, declared in 1973 was the first of its kind in the world. A committee of management under the local Council made up of a range of local stakeholders with different interests and experience is responsible for developing a range of policies for the management of the reserve. In the south-west region of Western Australia, Surfrider Foundation, local surfers and Surfing Western Australia led a concerted campaign based around the issue of surfer safety that eventually led to the Fisheries Minister creating exclusion zones around 31 of the regions surfbreaks. The exclusion zones prevented both recreational and professional crayfishers from laying pots within the surf zones. Other ways of using regulation to manage surfbreaks include community title / private ownership over waves (eg Tavarua) or heavy localism, surf rage or aggression that discourages or intimidates other surfers.
Natural or human modifications to the resource base – Infrastructure works have the potential to create, modify or destroy waves. To date, there have been many examples of waves being destroyed (eg Kirra, Dana Point) but also examples of waves being improved (South Stradbroke Island, Duranbah, most of new Jersey). Over the past 20 years, the small growth in the artificial reef industry has prompted many to realise that coastal protection and surf quality need not be mutually exclusive goals. Mother Nature has a powerful and remarkable ability to turn on, turn off or turn things upside down. Big storms may bring waves to places only once every few years and natural climate variability may mean breaks that were once consistent may be less so for a while. The impact of natural climate variability combined with human induced climate change on surf breaks is not yet very well understood.
What can we do to protect surfing capital?
In a number of places in Australia and around the world surfing capital is under threat and as the previous section has described, surfers and the surfing community have reacted in different ways. On an international scale, we’ve seen the formation of the Surfrider Foundation, an international not-for-profit organization with over 100,000 members worldwide. The Foundation’s mission statement is to ‘protect and enjoy the world’s oceans, waves and beaches for all people’. Locally and without much publicity at all, many groups and individuals work to protect surfing capital in their own way, both from an environmental and a human perspective. More recently the National Reserves Group in Australia was founded with Peter Garrett MP as the patron of the organization and in New Zealand we’ve seen the rise of the Surfbreak Protection Society.
The concept of surfing reserves or sanctuaries has recently gained significant coverage in both the surf and general media, however, it is by no means a new concept and certainly not the only means of protecting a surfbreak. While surfing reserves may be the panacea many surfers are looking for to assist them manage or maintain surfing capital, there is still significant scepticism around the concept of what a reserve is and who might benefit. A reserve might assist to manage or protect particular environmental, cultural, economic or social characteristics of a surf break and surrounding areas. Farmer and Short, the founders of the National Reserves Group in Australia suggest that a surfing reserve achieves three purposes: it formally recognises the site as an area of surfing significant and quality surf; it recognises the long and close links between surfers and the surf; and it will assist in the long term preservation of the site for future surfers. A reserve could be declared for all three of these reasons or just one. There is no fixed model for a reserve. The issue at stake is surfing capital and this varies at every surf break. What’s appropriate for one area may not work somewhere else. The standout factors are: surf quality; ongoing support from and benefit to the local community; and local involvement in the ongoing management of the surfing asset.
Do I need a reserve to protect surfing?
The short answer is no, in many places surfbreaks are well managed or are remote enough not to require any sort of management framework, however, with an ever-increasing surfing population, environmental and development and competing use pressures in the coastal zone there may be good reason for moving down this path. A number of local communities have considered and abandoned the idea of a formal surfing reserve in any format because of the fear that it would attract more surfers to the area – a kind of if we name it then it will become more popular fear – a this may well be justified.
It’s important to realise exactly what you’re getting into with a reserve. Formally including a group means that you may by default formally exclude another group eg fishers and this will only serve to increase local tensions. At both Bells and Angourie there is currently little to worry about in terms of water quality or problems associated with engineering works, but if there were, there would certainly be more problems. Bells now has a Marine National Park offshore and is also listed on the Victorian Heritage Register for its social and cultural significance. The model for Bells may not be applicable for Lennox Head, which has a sewage outfall just around the corner, however Lennox Point, Broken Head, Wategos and the Pass all fall within the Cape Byron Marine Park so if the community was interested in protecting the surf quality then that may be a better option. On the Gold Coast for example, the coast and surf quality has been heavily modified over many years and ongoing engineering works have drastically changed surf quality for better and for worse in this region. While the Gold Coast is arguably an important cultural hub for surfing in Australia and this should be formally recognised, would declaring one or a number of reserves in the area give the local community a stronger say in the coastal management issues that affect surfing?
There is no doubt that the formal declaration of surfing reserves can help to build and protect surfing capital. Bells Beach and now Angourie are excellent examples of this. There is also no doubt that the local community at Angourie were very clear that the reserve would be used to protect the ‘natural and cultural values’ of the place and there is a risk that community and government expectations might not be the same.
If the regulative functions that a surfing reserve can perform can also be achieved under other regulations such as for safe bathing or plans of management, and they can, and declaring a surfbreak a reserve may not ensure that surfers have a greater role in the management of a location that has been heavily modified, and they may not, then what purpose is a reserve? As a surfer, would you be proud to declare Gunnamatta in its current form a surfing reserve with 60% of Melbourne’s sewage pumped into the surf zone every day. What about Kirra, arguably the world’s best surfbreak and now little more than a marginal beach break as a result of overpumping by the Tweed River Entrance Sand Bypassing Project.
That said, there is something special about the concept of ‘surfing reserve’. It tugs at the heartstrings and makes you puff up a little. Can you imagine them building a marina or some other structure that would destroy the surf in a surfing reserve? I can’t. If Kirra was a surfing reserve would the government have been quite so ready to cover it over in millions of tons of sand? Probably not. Some in the surfing community believe that we can use the idea of surfing reserves to celebrate the significance of surfing and surfers to a local area – and this is a good thing. In other communities there are very real threats to surfing capital and surfers believe we need to get our house in order before we do the celebrating – and this is a good thing. Still others may choose to use a surfing reserve as a tool to protect and enhance their surfing capital – and this is also a good thing.
There is no doubt that surfing interests have seldom been considered in the grand scheme of things when it came to coastal planning and management and surfing is poorer for this. In whatever form it takes, the concept of a surfing reserve or sanctuary, whether its linked to recreation, conservation or culture has much to offer the surfer both today and for tomorrow and is worth exploring in more detail.
- Neil Lazarow
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