By Matt McClain
This past October, the eyes of the nation were focused on California and the wildfires that ravaged the southern half of the state. As I watched coverage of the disaster unfold on television, I was reminded of an old saying, “Crisis creates community.” If this is indeed true, now is the time for all surfers to band together. All across the country, from New York and Florida to California and Hawai‘i, our oceans, waves, and beaches are in crisis.
Just getting to the surf is proving problematic. Beach access is a fast-growing issue in many coastal areas. Spots such as Latigo in Malibu, California; Rockaway Beach in New York; and Domes in Puerto Rico are renowned for their ability to produce outstanding waves but are also difficult (if not impossible) to surf due to limited or severely restricted access.
This year has also seen a record number of beach warnings and closures issued due to increasingly poor water quality along our nation’s coasts. Samples taken of coastal waters continue to indicate elevated levels of bacteria such as fecal coliform and enterococcus, both of which typically indicate the presence of sewage contamination. “What’s really frightening,” says Chad Nelsen, environmental director for the Surfrider Foundation, “is knowing that there are other potentially life-threatening pathogens out in the water that don’t show up in these tests. We’ve seen documented cases of hepatitis and even a case of flesh-eating streptococcus, where the source of infection has been traced back to surfing or recreating in contaminated coastal waters.”
Of course, all this is assuming that there are even waves left to surf. Unbelievably, development continues to threaten surf spots across the globe. We’re not talking anonymous beachbreaks, either. World-class waves such as Freight Trains, Lower Trestles, and Jardim Do Mar are in direct jeopardy at this very moment.
As firefighters slowly started to gain the upper hand on California’s wildfires, America got its first look at the devastation. A sea of burnt homes and charred hillsides sat as ghostly reminders of the property, lives, and wilderness lost. And while the damage that is being done to our oceans, waves, and beaches may appear outwardly less dramatic, unless the surfing community can pull together, ultimately the result may be the same: waves buried under harbor breakwaters, mile after mile of beach closure and no trespassing signs, and an ocean of unfulfilled promise.
This is the first installment of “Surfrider Update,” a new monthly column dealing with specific environmental issues in your area. Please support the Surfrider Foundation at surfrider.org.