Environmental economics is a set of methods used to quantify the value of something that has no price or market to be bought or sold.
It uses methods known as non-market valuations which help gauge the value of protecting things that good old earth gives us that adds value to our lives, yet we cannot buy. Protecting endangered animals or keeping the park around the corner from your office so you can sit and cry on your lunch break, for example. Surfing is another one of these things. There is no concierge to buy tickets for entry into the ocean and no auction for the wave of the day, and yet you’d probably be hard-pressed to find someone coming off the back of the recent summer holidays to say surfing is completely worthless.
While the act of surfing is free, thousands of dollars are spent on equipment and travel by surfers and injected into local and global economies. Perhaps you got gifted a foamie to fulfil your new year’s resolution to learn to surf, or you left your third wetsuit behind in a carpark because you were wildly hungover and now you gotta go buy another one. That’s money into the market, baby, and that’s what we call economics. But unlike other outdoor recreational activities like fishing and diving, surfing simply doesn’t get the same level of recognition for how much it is really worth. Despite the growing body of research by academics known as Surf Economics, the value of surfing by coastal planners and policymakers is poorly understood and often unaccounted for.
Take the future Ocean Reef Marina off Joondalup in Western Australia, for example. It’s about to transform 1.5 kilometres of coastline into a ‘vibrant waterfront precinct,’ featuring a coastal pool, shopping outlets, restaurants and living spaces. As a part of the original plan, an artificial surf reef was included to compensate for the three surf breaks which will be destroyed to create the whole thing.
The reef has since been sidelined as a ‘potential future amenity’ totally discounting the social and environmental benefits of these breaks to the Western Australian surfing community—a community, I might add, that WA is famous for, alongside the rest of Australia’s surfing identity.
It’s true that measuring the benefits of surfing is much more difficult than retail sales and restaurant turnovers, but that’s not to say it is impossible. There is a growing body of research to suggest the surf industry could be worth billions of dollars. In the US, a house next to the Santa Cruz break is worth US$100,000 more than the equivalent house just over one kilometre up the road. In Brazil or Bali, zones closer to the better surf breaks showed higher economic activity, as shown by satellite images in a 2017 study. Intangible mental health and social benefits have also been studied, with combat veterans, at-risk youth, and youth with disabilities all significantly benefiting from surfing programs.
Failure to properly account for surfing as a part of the planning process has been seen before. In northern Spain, the world-renowned Mundaka wave temporarily disappeared following dredging, resulting in the cancellation of the Billabong Pro World Championship in 2005 and 2006. As did the decline of economic growth in Madeira, the Portuguese island which was severely affected by a rock wall construction.
Some places have nailed it. The Superbank in Snapper, for example, is thanks to well-planned management interventions that have adequately considered how much surfing is worth to the local Goldy economy and lifestyle. Considering there are 1.2 million active surfers in Australia, it seems like a pretty big gap in the market not to be paying attention to, even if you hate math.