Tucked up in the far north of Peru you'll find Lobitos, a quiet coastal town known as one of the country's best places to surf. Its seven wave breaks crash and glide onto sandy beaches and rocky outcrops, and its sunsets are legendary. But the waves that draw crowds of surfers each year aren't just revered by those who ride them – their protection is enshrined in law.
In 2014, the ground-breaking Ley de Rompientes, or "law of the breakers", came into effect, making Peru the first country in the world to give its waves legal protection. Under the law, the development of infrastructure, oil and gas exploration and fishing activities that could harm top-quality surf spots were restricted. More than once it has halted activity in Lobitos that risked disturbing the waves. The law has been seen as so effective that surfers in Chile are now campaigning for their own version.
Surf spots have proven to be highly emotive when it comes to preserving Peru's coasts. "People take it very personally, and even go physically to stand in the place to stop the machinery from removing the soil whenever these constructions have happened," says Alejandro Pizarro, director of research and communications at Lobitos-based charity EcoSwell. "It's a very tight-knit community."
But Peru's law of the breakers wasn't just based on affection for these beauty and sporting spots, but a recognition that they contribute to the surrounding area economically and environmentally. From the United States to Bali, a wave of evidence is building that suggests surfing can be surprisingly beneficial to the coastal ecosystem.
The idea of using economics to assess the value of surfing resources, branded "surfonomics", has been around for a little over a decade. An early study in the field centred on Mavericks in California, a famous break that throws up waves of 10-30ft (3-9m), and draws in huge crowds of spectators.
Those who love riding the waves can have a huge influence on the coastal ecosystems around them (Credit: Getty Images)
Big wave surfer João de Macedo, a campaigner who was involved in the research, says Mavericks already had legal protection as a national marine sanctuary, but surfonomics "was something that when you talk to a politician [they could use to] justify conservation in a more practical way". The net economic value of Mavericks was finally estimated at about $24m (£17m) a year filtering through its local tourism industry.
When we presented one of the studies in Chile, they were like: 'You guys have got to be kidding me. Surfers are spending that much?' – Nik Strong-Cvetich
Surfonomics studies have now been replicated at least a dozen spots across the world, including Mundaka in Spain and Uluwatu in Bali, and the methodology has been refined over the years to make it easier to replicate and quicker to complete. For many communities, it's an important part of being recognised as a World Surfing Reserve, an international designation that helps protect the local ecosystem for surfers and gives weight to wider conservation efforts.
"It's not rocket science in terms of ecological economics," admits Nik Strong-Cvetich, executive director of international environmental surf coalition Save The Waves, which designates surf spots as World Surfing Reserves.
"When we originally started surfonomics, it was just to kind of say, 'Hey surfing has value'. But now we want to make sure that we've proven the value of all these places we're protecting. When we presented one of the studies in Chile, they were like: 'You guys have got to be kidding me. Surfers are spending that much?' But, like, they are."
In fact, contrary to its laid-back image, surfing is a huge and lucrative international industry. Having initially been reticent to assign a monetary value to waves, UK environmental surf charity Surfers Against Sewage estimated in 2013 that surfing contributes £1-1.8bn ($1.4-2.5bn) per year across the UK and could have an overall economic impact of as much as £5bn ($7bn).
The local economy of Lobitos relies heavily on surfing, and protecting their waves in law was intended to help safeguard that income (Credit: Alejandro Pizarro)
Back in Peru, EcoSwell's Pizarro, who has a background in political science, had always suspected that surfers made a big contribution to Lobitos. And while the town had its waves under legal protection, surfonomics was an opportunity to understand just how much the town depended on surfing.
The idea of having stats is to be able to argue that there's huge importance in taking care of these environmental issues, because of the amount of money they mean – Alejandro Pizarro
So EcoSwell set up a survey, headed by Marcos Abilio Bosquetti, a management researcher at the Federal University of Santa Catarina in Brazil and member of the International Association of Surfing Academics. The aim was to find out how much surfing was worth to the community, asking how much people spent, where they came from and what they valued in the area.
When the charity crunched the numbers in 2020, together with Bosquetti, even they were surprised by how much: $3.6m (£2.6m) in 2019 – a substantial portion of the municipality's total annual budget.
The other thing that surprised Pizarro was how many people would not return to Lobitos for environmental reasons such as visible trash or the creaking public sewage system, which, in his own words, "looks like a horror film". Tourists were particularly put off by the presence of oil rigs and pumping sites, which are still active on and offshore.
Surfonomics surveys showed that tourists did not approve of oil extraction at Lobitos (Credit: Alamy)
Pizarro hopes the study will encourage public authorities to improve facilities in the town and perhaps even discourage oil extraction. "The idea of having stats is to be able to argue that there's huge importance in taking care of these environmental issues, because of the amount of money they mean."
And while Covid-19 has had a devastating effect on international tourism, Pizarro hopes that this might actually incentivise serious investment in Lobitos to help tempt tourists back.
As well as restricting development and cleaning up wastewater and rubbish, the protection of surfing spots has been linked to wider positive impacts on the marine environment. One reason why is that the very seafloor features that create good waves also create good habitats for marine life.
Natural surf breaks depend on the unique geophysical properties of the sea floor which include these benthic ecosystems – Christel Scheske
"Natural surf breaks depend on the unique geophysical properties of the sea floor which include these benthic ecosystems," says Christel Scheske, marine and coastal governance initiative coordinator at the Peruvian Society for Environmental Law.
"By protecting surf breaks from threats such as infrastructure development [such as piers or breakers], you inadvertently also protect these same geophysical properties that the benthic ecosystems require to exist."
The benthic regions – the seafloor, and the waters near it – are particularly rich in biodiversity, she adds. They provide habitats for fish, the growth of marine plants and algae that can capture carbon, and they also protect the coast from erosion and flooding by buffering wave action with their flora.
In one 2019 study, Scheske and her colleagues argued that the most iconic surf breaks – those with great waves and a strong surfing culture – should be protected not only for their value to surfers, but their benefits to the environment, human wellbeing and the potential for sustainable tourism. They recommend that governments and civil society consider using surfing to re‐engage citizens with natural marine environments. After all, surfers have founded many prominent conservation organisations around the world, they note, including Save The Waves, the US-based Surfrider Foundation and, in the UK, Surfers Against Sewage.
Many surfonomics studies do not account for factors such as the carbon emissions from tourists' long-distance travel to get to the sites
"How many sports have got such fully formed campaigning groups?" asks Hugo Tagholm, Surfers Against Sewage chief executive. "There's a potent cocktail of real issues – marine litter, sewage and other water pollution, coastal elements, climate change – and a very media-friendly group of individuals that are doing a sport that's quite aspirational. We're in the ocean; we should be at the forefront of calling for its protection."
Development at Lobitos, Peru, has been stopped more than once due to the legal protection of the waves (Credit: Henry Espinoza)
This vocal group can make marine protection much more effective, adds Strong-Cvetich. "Surfing communities are very localised around particular places and so they're very incentivised to care for them."
Value of nature
But this also leads to one of the limitations of the environmental protection from surfing – its focus on very specific spots, that happen to have good waves. "Is the surfing community going to stand up for every protected area, wherever? No, not necessarily," says Strong-Cvetich.
And there are other concerns with the broader approach of surfonomics. Tagholm has reservations about the basic idea of quantifying the value of a natural resource like a surf break. "The surfing reserve approach is really useful to talk about all of the components that create the rich experience we need," says Tagholm. "[But] we're in an age where we put a cost on everything but we value nothing." This echoes a debate going on in conservation more broadly.
And, while the physical act of surfing a natural wave has a minimal environmental impact, many surfonomics studies do not account for factors such as the carbon emissions from tourists' long-distance travel to get to the sites, the use of resources in making boards and petroleum-based wetsuits, or reef damage through trampling and chemicals in certain sunblocks.
Ultimately these giant waves are geological natural phenomena, so people do have this contact with nature – João de Macedo
In fact, Tagholm suggests that one of the most valuable things a surfer could do might sometimes be to put the board away. "The biggest thing we can do is protect wild natural habitats and the ocean offers us that sort of opportunity. It's no longer like: 'Let's go and find a surf break and cut back a bit of jungle to find the new reef in Indonesia or wherever'. Actually, that's no longer cool, we need some unexplored world."
De Macedo shares some of these concerns. "There was feedback that [surfonomics] was putting a price tag on the location so that there could be some developer, and he would just pay the [money] and say: 'Okay now this is mine, and I can do whatever I want with it.'"
That's why surfonomics studies have attempted to include some of the social and cultural benefits of surfing – such as the reasons people visit particular beaches, who with and what they value about them – that are more difficult to quantify. "Ultimately these giant waves are geological natural phenomena, so people do have this contact with nature that goes beyond just accounting for how many visitors and how much money they spend at the cafe and on merchandise," says de Macedo.
Surfonomics is still a relatively immature field of study and needs refining to align with wider "natural capital methodologies" – tools that measure the value of natural assets and allow them to be included in mainstream accounting systems, Scheske notes. This would help strengthen surf protection and better account for the negative impacts of surfing on the environment, she says, "which will probably vary greatly between different ecosystems and sites, depending on the fragility of the given ecosystem and how it is accessed by surfers".
But on balance, the connection to the ocean that people gain from surfing creates "a net positive impact", she says, especially compared to activities such as jet skiing or wakeboarding, which require more equipment and often rely on fossil-fuel power.
Pizarro, who still regularly rides the waves at Lobitos alongside sea lions, turtles and the occasional humpback whale, hasn't forgotten what drew him to conservation. "With the animals, the wave, everything needs to be as perfect as it was when it was first created in order for you to surf the best possible wave and have the best possible time. It makes you aware that you're a part of an ecosystem that you need to protect."
Pizarro is one of thousands of surfers around the world trying to build conservation into their sport. As science, economics and the love of surfing align, they hope to leverage the power of their waves to protect coasts in a way that benefits not just hard-core wave-riders but everyone who enjoys, and relies on, the sea.
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