Surfing Area Protection

From Beachapedia


The protection and enjoyment of waves is a central focus of Surfrider Foundation's mission. Surfing areas represent rare natural resources that provide recreational opportunities and environmental, aesthetic, and economic benefits. Many surfing areas around the globe are currently threatened or degraded by water quality problems, access restrictions, coastal development or coastal ecosystem impacts. Surfers can prevent the loss of surfing areas by identifying key locations, demonstrating their benefits to local and state governments, and working to establish them as surfing reserves or a similar protected status.

State Laws and Policies

Hawaii, California and Texas are examples of states that recognize waves as valuable recreational, economic, and cultural resources to be protected.


Several sections of the California Coastal Act (pdf) deal with the importance of preserving areas that provide coastal recreation. Section 30213 states: "Lower cost visitor and recreational facilities shall be protected, encouraged, and, where feasible, provided. Developments providing public recreational opportunities are preferred." Section 30220 states: "Coastal areas suited for water-oriented recreational activities that cannot readily be provided at inland water areas shall be protected for such uses."


Section 205A-2 Coastal zone management program objectives and policies (pdf) refers to surfing in providing adequate, accessible, and diverse recreational opportunities in the coastal zone management area including – protecting coastal resources uniquely suited for recreational activities that cannot be provided in other areas; providing an adequate supply of shoreline parks and other recreational facilities suitable for public recreation; ensuring public recreational use of county, state, and federally owned or controlled shoreline lands and waters; adopting water quality standards to protect and restore recreational value of coastal waters; developing new shoreline recreational opportunities, where appropriate; and encouraging reasonable dedication of shoreline areas with recreational value for public use.


The Texas Open Beaches Act, ratified in 1959, states, "It is declared and affirmed to be the public policy of this state that the public, individually and collectively, shall have the free and unrestricted right of ingress and egress to and from the state-owned beaches bordering on the seaward shore of the Gulf of Mexico....". It also sets requirements that municipalities must meet for public beach parking and access points. Although this policy facilitates access to surfable waves, it is less specific than the policies in California and Hawaii in affording protection to the waves.

In November of 2009, Texas Voters, by a 3 to 1 margin, made Public Beach Access a Constitutional Right.

Surf Economics

An under-appreciated aspect of surfing area protection is the economic benefit that surfing areas bring to beach communities. An estimate 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. 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.

The documented positive economic impact of visitors to surfing areas such as Trestles 1, 2 in southern California; Mavericks in central California; Brevard County, Florida; Mundaka in Spain; and along the Gold Coast in Australia is substantial. A study of surfers visiting Trestles estimated a range for the annual economic impact to the city of San Clemente that could be from $8 to $13 million/year.

For a more detailed discussion of surfing and beach economics, see Dr. Chad Nelsen's Collecting & Using Economic Information to Guide the Management of Coastal Recreational Resources, the doctoral dissertation that he completed at UCLA in the Environmental Science and Engineering program in March 2012.

Threats to Surfing Areas



Poor water quality resulting from various land activities can threaten the health of surfers, other beach and coastal water users and marine life. Scientific research (see article on Epidemiological Studies) indicates that swimming in water with high bacteria levels can increase the swimmer's risk of experiencing adverse health conditions like fever, nausea, gastroenteritis, sore throat, and various infections (see articles Health Threats from Polluted Coastal Waters and Staph Infections). Sewage spills and poor water quality in the surf zone from other sources may lead to beach health advisories and closures, which may prevent access to the surf, increase the risk of disease, or make the surfing experience less pleasurable.

Water pollution from both point source pollution (pollutants discharged directly into water from factories or sewage treatment plants) and Non Point Source Pollution (rain water or dry weather Urban Runoff washing pollutants off our land and streets) can and does threaten surf spots.

No Access


Restricted public beach access is perhaps the most direct and visible threat to surfing areas. In most states, although beaches are public trust resources, opportunities to access them may be threatened directly or indirectly by various landowners, government regulations, and coastal development. Although the ability to walk along the beach, is, in most states, a public right, getting to the beach is often more difficult. Because much of the land between where people can park and where they can enjoy the beach is often privately owned, the ability to enjoy beaches often depends on the quality and availability of access between roads and parking lots and the beach. See Surfrider Foundation's policy on beach access, this article on beach access and the Beach Access summary from Surfrider's State of the Beach report.

Coastal Development


Coastal development can displace sandy beaches, limit both lateral and vertical access to the beach, disrupt the natural flow of sand, and destroy the open spaces remaining along our coasts. Installation of shoreline structures such as seawalls, rock revetments, jetties, groins, and other hard structures inevitably leads to loss of sand from beaches. In addition, these structures may destroy surfing areas by blocking waves, compromising wave quality or creating more dangerous surfing conditions.

Beach fill, where sediment from dredging a harbor, offshore sources, or an upland site is placed on a beach to widen it, has the potential to negatively affect surfing areas. Issues associated with beach fill include sand compatibility/quality, ecological effects, changes to the beach and offshore bottom contours, effects on wave quality, and damage to offshore reefs.

Coastal Ecosystem Impacts


Surfing in a healthy wild ocean with an intact marine ecological system has positive intrinsic and aesthetic benefits to surfers and the surfing experience. Beaches and coastal areas are diverse and productive systems that serve as a critical link between marine and terrestrial environments. They support populations of coastally-dependent plant and animal species, including some that are threatened or endangered and many that are commercially and recreationally important, by providing habitat, serving as breeding grounds and functioning as areas of high primary production. Beaches and coastal wetlands also provide protection against the effects of coastal storms, filter nutrients and other pollution from runoff and support local recreation and tourism opportunities.

A degraded coastal ecosystem can threaten surfing areas and ruin the surfing experience. For example, an increase of nutrients (such as nitrogen or phosphorus) in the water, known as eutrophication, can cause excessive growth of algae (see full article: "Red Tides" and Harmful Algal Blooms). Eventually the algae die and decompose, resulting in a decrease of oxygen that degrades water quality, kills fish and other animal populations, and stinks. Also, it should be remembered that part of the aesthetic of surfing is experiencing and interacting with the terrestrial and aquatic habitat at the beach (or on the way to the beach), so any diminishment of the coastal ecosystem diminishes the surfing experience.

Tools for Surfing Area Protection


Projects that can threaten surf breaks, such as construction of new harbors, breakwaters, and groins, typically require federal agency approval, such as from the United States Army Corps of Engineers (ACOE). Other coastal development projects may require only state and/or local approval. Under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and State Environmental Protection Acts, agencies or private project proponents must perform an Environmental Assessment or Initial Study to screen the project for potential environmental impacts. If there is an indication that there may be environmental impacts, they must prepare an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) or an Environmental Impact Report (EIR), describing the environmental impacts for the proposed project and identifying alternatives, including a no project alternative. An EIS or EIR gives environmental groups and concerned citizens the opportunity to force project proponents to look at the environmental impacts of the project and to consider alternatives and mitigation actions that would avoid destroying surf breaks. Second, the NEPA project timeline is long enough to allow concerned citizen groups and the general public to become active stakeholders and participants in the project planning process. Greater awareness of potential environmental impacts reduces the chances of undertaking a damaging project.


The 1972 federal Coastal Zone Management Act (CZMA) focuses specifically on coastal zone issues. The CZMA provides grants to encourage state participation in a Coastal Zone Management (CZM) program. To qualify, a state program must comprehensively organize the uses of coastal areas so that they are compatible with the state's management goals. The state coastal acts therefore can be used to protect surf breaks.

Public Trust Doctrine

Under the public trust doctrine, navigable waters, the submerged land beneath them, and the tidelands are held by the State in trust for the benefit of all people. The doctrine protects all navigable tidewaters including the waters off the coast. Because surf breaks are located along the coast, arguably they fall within the scope of the public trust. While no state has yet to recognize a surf break as a natural resource to be protected under the public trust doctrine, California (and perhaps other states) have held that doctrine can be used to protect access to a beach used for surfing, boating and other ocean recreation.


One of the most effective ways to challenge a coastal development project is to organize public opposition to the project. Surfers have effectively blocked destructive projects in a number of instances by organizing with other concerned groups, lobbying local city councils, and/or attracting wide publicity.

Models for Surfing Areas Protection

Surfing Reserves

One means of protecting a surf break is through creation of a surfing reserve. This has been done in Australia and is being considered in New Zealand and elsewhere. A surfing reserve is a part of the coastal environment recognized by the local community for the quality and consistency of its surf and its long-term and on-going relationship between the surf and surfers. It usually encompasses the beach and adjacent surf zone, but may include features of the marine and coastal zone which enhance aspects of the surfing experience. Locations may include the birthplaces of surfing in a region, or places considered historically significant or irreplaceable. 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.

Protected Areas

Protected areas are locations that receive protection because of their environmental, cultural or similar value. There are numerous examples of protected terrestrial areas in natural states for the long-term benefit of ecosystems while providing for recreational lifestyles, including wilderness areas, parks, reserves, preserves, conservation areas, and sanctuaries.

In the marine environment, protected areas can serve the same purpose: establishing places where certain destructive or extractive human activities are limited or prohibited so plants and animals are protected. These areas can also allow for non-extractive recreational activities that provide for urban lifestyle stress relief and outdoor education. The February 2013 issue of MPA Connections is a special issue focusing on recreation in MPAs (including surfing), and features articles written by several MPA Center partners, including Pete Stauffer of Surfrider Foundation.

Bells Beach in Victoria, Australia (pdf) and Tres Palmas Marine Reserve in Rincon, Puerto Rico are examples of marine protected areas that include surf breaks.
UPDATE: It turns out that all is not well at Bells Beach.

Heritage Sites

Heritage sites may also be used for surfing area protection. While surfing reserves provide more of a recreation protection focus and protected areas provide more of an ecosystem protection focus, heritage sites provide a cultural and historical protection focus. National Heritage Areas work to conserve natural, cultural, historic, and scenic features and preserve the traditions, customs, and beliefs that are a valuable part of the national story. Congress has established 40 National Heritage Areas around the country in which conservation, interpretation and other activities are managed by partnerships among federal, state, and local governments and the private sector. After a heritage area is designated by Congress, National Park Service staff partner with local community members to plan and implement activities that emphasize heritage-centered interpretation, conservation and development projects. Although there are currently no surfing areas that are designated National Heritage Areas, a study by Surfrider Foundation and the National Park Service identified 85 surfing spots in 25 separate national park units.

National Heritage Areas require a management plan which defines the mission, vision and goals of the National Heritage Area and outlines the strategies that the coordinating entity, partners and residents will use to achieve these objectives. Implementation of the plan rests in the hands of local citizens, officials, organizations and businesses - not the Federal government. Heritage sites can also be potentially established at the state level through State Park agencies.

The Future

On June 3, 2009, Save The Waves announced the official formation of the World Surfing Reserves (WSR) Vision Council and Selection Committee for 2009. The Vision Council will provide high-level guidance and oversight for the new program, which aims to proactively designate, enshrine and preserve outstanding surfing waves, surf zones and their surrounding environments. The Selection Committee will be charged with paring down nominated candidates from around the world, and creating the initial list of potential World Surfing Reserves sites.

The WSR Vision Council includes surfing and environmental visionaries such as International Surfing Association president Fernando Aguerre, former ASP president Wayne "Rabbit" Bartholomew, big wave champion Greg Long, environmental attorney and activist Mark Massara, Mavericks pioneer and contest director Jeff Clark, Surfrider executive director Jim Moriarty, World Championship Tour Top 44 surfer Tiago Pires, and National Surfing Reserves Australia co-founders Prof. Andy Short and Brad Farmer.

The World Surfing Reserves program was launched at the Value of Waves Roundtable on December 5th, 2008, in Half Moon Bay, California. The Roundtable brought together an international group of surfers, industry leaders, environmentalists and journalists to approve and set forth a blueprint for the WSR program.

The WSR program will have three working bodies: the Vision Council, the Selection Committee and the Field Team. All three bodies will be working in different functions to select and enshrine the yearly wave nominations submitted by the International Surfing Association recognized National Governing Bodies as well as other nationally recognized environmental entities.

  • In April 2012 Santa Cruz was dedicated as a World Surfing Reserve.
  • In October 2012 Huanchaco, Peru was approved as a World Surfing Reserve and was dedicated in October 2013.

Here's a video documenting the process of selecting a World Surfing Reserve:

This is a presentation on World Surfing Reserves made by Surfrider Foundation's CEO Chad Nelsen

Additional Information

Additional information regarding surfing area protection can be found in Surfrider's State of the Beach report.

A presentation on this topic (pdf) was given at the Coastal Zone conference in Boston, MA in July 2009.

The organization Surfers Against Sewage in the UK, working through their Protect Our Waves program, has published an excellent Waves are Resources report (pdf) that clearly highlights why Waves Are Resources and, as such, should be recognized as valuable assets, protected for this and future generations. The WAR Report not only focuses on the intrinsic value of waves to surfers but also the economic value to the wider community.

This article is part of a series on Beach Access looking at policies, laws, regulations and conditions which can affect the public's ability to access the coast.

For information about laws, policies and conditions impacting beach access in a specific state, please visit Surfrider's State of the Beach report to find the State Report for that state, and click on the "Beach Access" indicator link.

This article is part of a series on Clean Water which looks at various threats to the water quality of our oceans, and the negative impacts polluted waters can have on the environment and human health.

For information about laws, policies, programs and conditions impacting water quality in a specific state, please visit Surfrider's State of the Beach report to find the State Report for that state, and click on the "Water Quality" indicator link.

This article is part of a series on the Ocean Ecosystem looking at the various species of plants and animals which depend on a healthy coast and ocean environment, and the threats that can be posed to them by human activity

For information about laws, policies and conditions impacting the beach ecology of a specific state, please visit Surfrider's State of the Beach report to find the State Report for that state, and click on the "Beach Ecology" indicator link.