What is a surfing reserve, anyway?

Grant Ellis

Surfing as America knows it begins, and some would say ends, at Malibu, which makes it an appropriate place for the first "World Surfing Reserve."

Earlier this month, the Save the Waves Coalition and local groups succeeded in lobbying Los Angeles County's Board of Supervisors to designate Malibu as the first "World Surfing Reserve." On Oct. 9, in celebration of Malibu's new status, Chumash leader Mati Waya led a sunrise blessing, which was followed by a paddle-out ceremony at Surfrider Beach.

Malibu's designation came just months after a contentious battle over the establishment of Waikiki and Oahu's North Shore as "surfing reserves" in the state of Hawaii. Early in 2010, state Sen. Fred Hemmings -- the creator of the Pipe Masters and Triple Crown -- introduced a bill that would designate the reserves. The bill passed the state Senate unanimously, but was squashed by Democratic opposition in the House. Hemmings, a Republican, couldn't understand the controversy given the innocuous nature of the bill. He told Surfer magazine that the bill "was simply designed to recognize and celebrate the North Shore and Waikiki." Many saw the bill as a retirement gift to Hemmings, who was stepping down this year. After the bill was recommitted in the House (basically shelved), however, Hawaii Gov. Linda Lingle established the reserves through an executive order. Still, the executive order contains no enforceable law, and no funds were made available for the reserves.

The Malibu designation as a World Surfing Reserve was also purely honorary.

Grant Ellis

The Pipeline, a natural treasure worth protecting.

So, what's the point of a surfing reserve? Is it simply an excuse to create more signage, a way of municipally codifying nostalgia? Why should surfers get behind these designations?

According to Wildcoast Director Serge Dedina, the "protections" to surfing areas provided by reserve designations are largely symbolic. Yet there is a value, and history, to such symbolism. "The act of designating surfing reserves is to legislatively recognize their historical, cultural, economic and ecological significance," says Dedina, "That means if there is a development proposal that could destroy or alter a surfing area, you have the additional designation that could, in theory, increase the difficulty of carrying out the project."

It's a kind of "believing is half of being" approach to protection, but the method holds a distinguished track record. The Save the Waves Coalition says that the World Surfing Reserve program was partially inspired by the United Nations' UNESCO World Heritage Site designations. Dedina pointed to Baja California's San Ignacio Lagoon and Punta Abreojos -- and the proposed Mitsubishi salt plant that threatened their water quality and wildlife -- as an example of how designations like these can help in the fight.

Grant Ellis

Site of Bodhi's immortal taming of the 50-year-storm, Bell Beach, Australia, was also one of the world's first protected surfing habitats.

San Ignacio was already a UNESCO site and also occupied Mexico's Vizcaino Biosphere Reserve when the salt plant was proposed. Wildcoast led the effort that eventually defeated the project, and in hindsight Dedina says, "The argument that the area was a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and would be damaged [by the development] gave a huge political advantage to our side. UNESCO has no authority or really any legal standing to do anything, but just the symbolism of damaging a UNESCO site gave the Mexican government pause."

An example closer to home may be that of Trestles and the proposed toll road that was eventually defeated by a host of organizations, including Surfrider. Trestles falls within the California state park system, which is heir to the entire history of U.S. park protections that began with 1864's Yosemite Grant. And still, outside interests were nearly able to bulldoze over a century of precedent.

According to Dedina, the preservation of all threatened surf zones requires layers of protection -- symbolic designations, legislated protections, private conservation agreements and local groups invested in conservation. In other words, what's needed in the protection of "surf reserves" is the diligence of people who believe these areas to be special, in addition to the power of their designations. "Saving" waves is an extremely young endeavor, and compared with the lifespan of the resources at stake, it has only just begun.

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