Saving our Surfing Heritage Through World Surfing Reserves

One of the most innovative tools for the conservation of surf spots has been the development of Surfing Reserves. Pioneered by Brad Farmer in Australia, the Davenport-based Save the Waves Coalition has taken the lead on organizing the development of a global network of World Surfing Reserves.

Serge Dedina: Why do surfing areas need to be designated as Surfing Reserves?

Katie Westfall: Natural surf breaks are important public recreational resources. Unspoiled surf spots are unique and rare and important for their ecosystem services, recreational, aesthetic, educational, and economic values. On a global scale, surf breaks have been destroyed by coastal development and threatened by water quality issues or closure of beach access. In California alone, several surf spots have been destroyed along the coastline, including Killer Dana and Corona del Mar in Orange County and Stanely’s in Ventura County. Through World Surfing Reserves (WSR), we are proactively working to prevent this from happening to the most amazing surfing areas on the globe.

Dedina: What does a World Surfing Reserve status mean?

Westfall: Designation as a World Surfing Reserve means that an area has been formally recognized by a worldwide group of experts, the World Surfing Reserve Vision Council, as a globally significant surfing ecosystem. Once approved, the local community makes a long-term commitment to protect the area’s coastal and marine resources and creates a Local Stewardship Plan that outlines exactly how this commitment will be carried out. World Surfing Reserves staff in turn helps to build the capacity of the local community in threat response, stewardship, and community outreach and education, which are the three elements that form the fabric of managing a World Surfing Reserve.

Ericeira World Surfing Reserve, Portugal. Source: World Surfing Reserves.


Dedina: Where did the concept of surfing reserves come from?

Westfall: Surfing reserves can be traced back to the 1973 when the Victorian government in Australia officially established the first reserve at Bells Beach. National Surfing Reserves Australia (NSR) was formed in 2005, which was a pioneering program that created a blueprint for surfing reserves in Australia.

In 2009, Save The Waves Coalition partnered with NSR Australia and the International Surfing Association (ISA) to launch World Surfing Reserves, with the goal of adding layers of protection to world’s most iconic surf breaks and educating people about the tremendous value of these special places.”

Bell's Beach, the world's first Surfing Reserve. The area is now threatened.

Dedina: Are there more than one type of surfing reserve?

Westfall: Reserves can either designate an individual “wave break,” which includes just one surf spot, or can designate a “surf zone,” which includes multiple waves along the coast. The two types of Reserves are essentially managed in the same way.
Dedina: What surf spots globally and in California are now World Surfing Reserves?

Westfall: Currently, three World Surfing Reserves have been officially dedicated including Malibu in California, Ericeira in Portugal, and Manly Beach in Australia. Santa Cruz has been approved and will be dedicated as a World Surfing Reserve on April 28th. The official dedication ceremony for Santa Cruz will include an evening fundraiser on Friday, April 27th as well as the official dedication on April 28th, with a paddle out at the Pleasure Point at 10am and a ceremony at Steamer Lane at 1pm. The general public is invited to attend all the events of the dedication ceremony. For more information about the event, people can visit the WSR website.

Dedina: What is the process for evaluating and then designating a World Surfing Reserve?

Westfall: Communities interested in designating their local break or breaks as a World Surfing Reserve will first submit a brief Letter of Inquiry (LOI) to World Surfing Reserves. If the LOI meets the minimum criteria, then communities are invited to submit a full application to World Surfing Reserves. The WSR Vision Council, which is a global group of leaders from the surfing, environmental, scientific, media and business communities, then votes on whether or not the application is approved. The application is evaluated by four criteria: 1) quality and consistency of the wave or surf zone; 2) unique environmental characteristics of the area; 3) surf and ocean culture and history of the area; and 4) local community support.

Manly Beach World Surfing Reserve.


Dedina: Is the key criteria having a local stakeholder/stewardship group?

Westfall: Local community support for establishing a World Surfing Reserve is one of the main criteria for approval. Applicants must show broad support from local businesses, community groups, nonprofits, governmental agencies, etc. Once a World Surfing Reserve has been approved, a Local Stewardship Council, a group of seven members from the local community, is created and oversees the management of the Reserve. It is very much a grassroots effort dependent on support at the local level.

Killer Dana, before the Dana Point Marina killed it. This was a complex and important coastal and marine ecosystem. Now it is one of the most polluted areas on the Southern California coastline.


Dedina: Some have criticized World Surfing Reserves as having little teeth to prevent threats. Are there concrete examples of WSR status helping to reduce a threat or enhancing a surf spot’s conservation status?

Westfall: We see the WSR designation as a starting point rather than the finish line. We are planting the seeds of surf spot protection in the four WSR sites, and Local Stewardship Councils have been established for each site. These members serve as the guardians of the Reserve. These councils are identifying the needs for increased protection, which may include more stewardship, policymaking, better coastal planning, etc. The program is still in its infancy, and in the next couple of years we will be able to assess if these efforts are leading to more effective threat responses and increased stewardship of the coast and ocean.

WSR is essentially creating community around the protection of valuable surfing resources and increasing the number of tools available. Even locations that have significant legal protection can come under threat, but the more tools, resources, and people you have, the better chance you will have of defeating that threat. As the late Peter Douglas said, “The coast is never saved. It’s always being saved.” The same goes for waves.

Serge Dedina is the Executive Director of WiLDCOAST, an international conservation team that conserves coastal and marine ecosystems and widlife and is the author of Wild Sea: Eco-Wars and Surf Stories from the Coast of the Californias.

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