Goodbye: The Battle to Protect Australia’s Surf Spots | Surfing

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There’s a reason surfers like to keep their best spots secret.

For decades, wave surfers have led the way in little-known coastal towns – and in their wake come planners and developers.

When Clint Bryan bought his house 40 minutes north of the city of Perth, one consideration was paramount: it had to be close to his favorite surf spot.

And of course, his Kallaroo home is just a five-minute walk from the Indian Ocean. The name of the suburb is a Noongar word which means “road to water”.

But by the end of this summer, the waves Bryan has built his life around will disappear as the beach is redeveloped for the $252 million Ocean Reef marina.

The marina sits within the Marmion Marine Park and will transform 1.5km of coastline into shops, restaurants, boat moorings, a protected beach and new homes. Local state MP Emily Hamilton said it would create ‘thousands of jobs’ and inject $3 billion into Western Australia’s economy.

But it will also kill three surf spots – Mossies, Big Rock and Pylons.

Community group Save Ocean Reef said it would take the project to court because it damages the marine park, and a petition to build an artificial reef has reached nearly 2,500 signatures.

Ocean Reef has been a surfing destination since at least the 1950s, when it was all sand dunes and beach shacks, with just a trailer park nearby.

“It’s like losing our playground and the local waves we learned to ride,” says Bryan, a 43-year-old firefighter.

“It’s the end of an era and our group [Ocean Reef Artificial Reef] just wants the opportunity to keep the surf community alive in our area.”

The breakwater under construction at Ocean Reef. Photograph: Duncan Wright/The Guardian

The fragile magic of breaking up

Sean Doherty, president of advocacy group Surf Rider Foundation, says dozens of surf spots across the country are at risk from sand dune development or work.

“The pressure on the coastline is increasing,” says Doherty.

“For every surf spot that is in danger, it is the result of nearby development and it takes different forms.”

In some places, the developments are similar to those proposed for Ocean Reef.

On May 1, nearly 700 surfers paddled out to protest the development of eco-cabins, a conference center and a restaurant on Crown land near a surf break called The Farm in Killalea, Australia. south of Wollongong.

Opponents say the state-funded development will encroach on a national surfing reserve that was declared in 2009, although supporters of the development insist it will affect less than 2% of the reserve.

Brazil's Gabriel Medina in action during the 2021 World Surfing Championship event in Narrabeen, a break which the Surf Rider Foundation says is under threat.
Brazil’s Gabriel Medina in action during the 2021 World Surfing Championship event in Narrabeen, a break which the Surf Rider Foundation says is under threat. Photography: Cameron Spencer/Getty Images

But Doherty says the breaks most at risk are now Narrabeen and South Narrabeen on Sydney’s northern beaches, where construction has begun on a 7m-high, 1.3km concrete seawall to save 49 properties, a club and a parking lot built directly on the beach.

Although the levee will protect the houses from erosion and storm surges, it will also affect the flow of sand.

For waves to form, the movement of sand, which helps shape the seabed, is crucial.

Waves break when there is a reef or an accumulation of sand under the water, which makes it shallow enough for the incoming swell to rise and form waves.

In a natural system, sand flows in and out to sea or is carried by ocean currents.

But Doherty says seawalls, houses and vegetation are increasingly anchoring the sand to the shore, taking away the life force of the waves.

“The magical qualities that make a good surf spot are quite ephemeral and quite easily disrupted and altered, often due to development,” says Doherty.

The foundation says other breaches are also at risk from dyke proposals, including in Wamberal on the NSW central coast and Byron Bay, nine o’clock north, where residents have been fighting the suggestion for decades. years.

Last year authorities were forced to emergency sandbag and close Main and Clarkes beaches in Byron, where erosion caused by natural processes, the development of frontal dune systems and the climate change has taken its toll.

Other threats to surf breaks in New South Wales, Queensland, Victoria and Western Australia come from climate change, overcrowding and water pollution, according to the foundation.

Erosion damage at Clarkes Beach in Byron Bay in December 2020.
Erosion damage at Clarkes Beach in Byron Bay in December 2020. Photography: Dan Peled/AAP

A host of benefits

In 2010, New Zealand became one of only two countries in the world to legally protect surf spots (Peru being the other).

In Australia, neither state nor federal environmental legislation protects the waves.

Ana Manero, an environmental economist at the Australian National University who researches the economics of surfing, says the legal vacuum is a “massive blind spot”, but legislation is not the only way to defend the surf spots.

“We don’t have environmental laws to protect Australia’s surfing resources, but we do have an economic argument,” Manero says.

“Surfing brings a host of benefits, it makes places more liveable, it’s good for the local community, so the question is: when the waves are hit, how is that loss of value going to be counted?”

Wild Surfing at Snapper Rocks
Wild surf at Snapper Rocks, where an accidentally formed “superbank” actually improved the break. Photography: Dan Peled/AAP

There are around 2.5 million recreational surfers in Australia and surf tourism spending was estimated to be around $91 billion a year worldwide before the pandemic.

“It is crucial that we understand the real value of surfing before we lose the many benefits it brings, not only for the Australian surfing community, but also for the hundreds of coastal towns where surfing underpins the economy and the local way of life,” says Manero.

For decades, environmental economics has been applied to quantify the value of recreational activities, such as scuba diving and fishing.

Manero hopes the surf research will help inform better decisions when developments affect the waves.

“The problem for policy makers is that the ‘intangible’ benefits of surfing – such as mental health or social connections – are much harder to measure than jobs and retail sales – but I can tell you they translate into millions of dollars,” she says.

Manero says protecting waves doesn’t mean leaving beaches untouched – there are many examples where building groynes, jetties or sand dredging have improved wave quality.

At Snapper Rocks on the Gold Coast, a ‘superbank’ has unexpectedly formed after work to remove sand from the entrance to the River Tweed.

“During the planning process, if we could put some brains into understanding how waves form and the benefits they bring, then we would have a better chance of improving the well-being of coastal communities,” Manero says. .

“It’s difficult, but it’s doable.”

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