The historic relationship between surfing and the environment is a complex one.

These days with organisations like the Surfrider Foundation, Surfers Against Sewage and 1% For the Planet, it is difficult to imagine a time when this sport and the protection of our oceans weren’t deeply intertwined.

Humans have been riding the waves for thousands of years – probably since we first started to swim in the oceans – but the sport as we might recognise it today came from Hawai’i. There it was an art form with a number of rituals and a deep-seated, ancient respect for the sea.

After first being introduced to Americans in the 19th century, it quickly became popular across California and spread to the rest of the country. But these new surfers did not have the same environmental concerns as those who had come before.

With many surf spots still relatively untouched by human exploits, they hadn’t yet been given a reason to care.

Until 1969, when an oil spill in California galvanized them into action. At the time it was the largest oil spill in recorded US history and still ranks third behind Deepwater Horizon in 2010 and the Exxon Valdez spill in 1989. Kilometres of coastline were polluted – including some of the area’s most popular surfing spots.

An outraged group of surfers helped to form the activist group Get Oil Out! which fought to bring an end to offshore drilling in California. As more people around the world caught wind of their environmentalism, they turned to the protection of their own beaches.

And so modern surfing’s relationship with protecting nature was forged.

“I think when a surfer becomes a surfer, it’s almost like an obligation to be an environmentalist at the same time,” Kelly Slater, arguably the greatest professional surfer of all time, once said.

But what about all that plastic equipment?

Surfing’s relationship with the environment gets even more complex if you start to consider the mountains of plastic boards, wax and petroleum-based wetsuits that sport produces.

Boards are another challenge with many long term surfers having around four at any one time. They produce polyurethane scraps as their shape is carved and in the event that you crash out splitting them into two (or more) pieces, shed plastic directly into the ocean.

When you spend so much time in the sea, it’s hard to avoid the direct consequences of our immense plastic problem. You only have to wade through a litter-strewn tideline once to recognise that treating the ocean as a rubbish dump is an issue.

But things are starting to change as technology and attitudes catch up to the need for an alternative.

Big brands such as Patagonia now produce wetsuits from natural rubber emitting around 80 per cent less CO2 in its manufacture than more conventional neoprene. Surfing stalwart Ripcurl has just launched the first big wetsuit recycling programme.

Others are creating alternatives to plastic surfboards from 3D-printed recycled materials to mushroom fibres as a replacement for foam.

Surfonomics

With several professional leagues, hundreds of dedicated gear companies and many destinations around the world that rely on the sport for their economy, surfing is a multibillion-euro industry.

It is one of the fastest-growing sports and after its introduction to the Olympics this year, is only set to get bigger.

For the places that benefit from an influx of wetsuit clad wave riders, this means that there is now an economic drive behind protecting the breaks that bring them there.

Lobitos is a small town on the north coast of Peru with exceptional quality waves. The average surfing tourist that visits spends around $53 (€45) per day, according to a report from Save the Waves.

With more than 8,500 visitors every year it says that this brings $3.6 million (€3.04 million) to the local economy, significant for a village with just 1,000 inhabitants.

“The economic impact of surf tourism on the local economy of Lobitos is substantial,” says the report, “and should be considered when taking any coastal management decisions in the district.”

“The presence of oil rigs/pump sites, solid waste/trash, sewage overflow and construction on the beaches are the main factors that would negatively impact the surfer tourists’ decision to return to Lobitos.”

Though the impact may be greater because of the size of the town, the potential value of ensuring surf spots remain unblemished is a universal one.

The Save the Waves Coalition is now hoping to protect 1,000 waves by 2030 – aligning itself with the Campaign for Nature’s monumental ‘30 by 30’ pledge. The group is focusing on areas around the world where iconic surf destinations overlap with biodiversity hotspots.

“When we protect a wave, we are protecting much more than that,” says CEO, Nik Strong-Cvetich.

“We are protecting a surf ecosystem, which means the wave, the plants and animals that depend on the place, and the community that has been built around it.”



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