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Perth's surf break Pylon's is under threat

Surfonomics: The Financial Logic to Making and Saving Waves

The new branch of economics every surf town needs.

From the shore, it is just a regular spring day for the residents of Ocean Reef in Perth’s northern coast. In the water, the long-period swells and light easterly winds make it a perfect morning to surf Pylons. The hum of waves can still be heard over the construction machinery operating at the new nearby piers. By the end of summer, three Ocean Reef surf breaks – Mossies, Big Rock and Pylons – will no longer be heard, as they will be lost to the new marina.

The future Ocean Reef Marina will transform 1.5 km of coastline into a “thriving” hub of shopping outlets, restaurants, boat moorings and Perth’s first coastal pool. The project – receiving $252m of public funding – first included an artificial surf reef to compensate for the destruction of the three natural breaks. At a later stage, the artificial reef was sidelined as a “potential future amenity”, with the City of Joondalup explaining the cut was due to the reef’s cost of $7m.

You do not need a doctorate in economics to realise that a big part of the equation is missing here. While financial profits are grabbing the headlines, the worth of social and environmental values are not properly accounted for in the planning process. The consequence is that costal assets are being lost without adequate consideration and due compensation for what they are really worth.

I have spent my career studying environmental management and policy. I am also an avid surfer, Yes, it is true that benefits such as mental health and social connections are harder to measure than jobs and retail sales, but the research tells us that the ocean’s intangible benefits are actually worth millions of dollars.

Myself and other researchers are now using Surfing Economics to apply well-established scientific methods to reveal the true value of surfing – and the numbers are eye-watering. 

In the UK, a report found that the overall impact of surfing in the national annual economy was equal to UK£5bn. At a global level, pre-pandemic, surf tourism expenditure was USD$65bn per year.

Studies by the international coalition Save the Waves demonstrate how surf tourism brings millions of dollars local communities across the world, from Spain’s Mundaka to Bali’s Uluwatu.

In California, Dr Jason Scorse, Associate Professor at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies, and his colleagues demonstrated that good quality waves drive real estate prices up. The researchers showed that a property next to the Santa Cruz surf break was worth USD$100,000 more than an equivalent home a mile (1.6 km) further away.

In addition to financial gains, is it possible to quantify the social values of surfing.

For example, a team from NOVA University Lisbon found that surfers’ well-being derived from visiting the Costa de Caparica surf beach was worth more than €1m per year.

While countries like New Zealand and Peru have granted statutory protection to surf breaks under their environmental laws, Australia is still lagging behind when it comes to valuing the lifestyle it is famous for.

This disregarded is often not deliberate, but rather a result of the lack of awareness by decision-makers about the true value of surfing and ways to quantify it.

Through Surfing Economics, we can understand how surf breaks play an important and valuable role in the health and wellbeing of a society, while also generating financial benefits in tourism and housing. We can understand how changes in the natural ecosystem, such as the loss of a wave, translate into changes in financial, social and environmental values.

While it is possible to associate a dollar amount to surf breaks, these figures are by no means a price tag. Surfing Economics does not turn our waves into tradable commodities nor does it put breaks up for sale.

At a practical level, the information gained through Surfing Economics can be used to better communicate with coastal planners for a myriad of purposes, whether that may be understanding the potential value of an artificial reef or the worth of protecting a natural break threatened by climatic erosion.

For decades in Australia, environmental economics has been applied to other coastal recreation activities like SCUBA diving and fishing. These groups’ openness to enquiry and ability to communicate their values has contributed to hundreds of studies and millions of dollars invested in better understanding and conserving biodiversity marine resources.

With a greater acceptance of Surfing Economics among our communities we can be further empowered to have our voices heard by planners making decisions about our costal resources. We want our voices heard, so we will be able to hear the hum of waves for generations to come.

Dr Ana Manero is an environmental economist at the Australian National University, working on sustainable management of natural resources. To know more about Ana’s work on Surfing Economics, go to www.surfingeconomics.org

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