Skip to main content
Publish date:

A New Wave in Environmental Activism

Finding their oceanic haunts increasingly polluted, surfers are fighting back

Standing across the street from San Francisco's City Hall, Mark Massara is discussing water pollution, specifically that of the North Jetty at northern California's Humboldt Bay. "The first time I ever surfed there, it was big, triple-overhead—totally disgusting. The surfing rivals Hawaii's, but the break looks like a two-story oil slick. There was a nasty fibrous brown foam that would slap you in the face."

Call it surfer's revenge. In May 1989 Massara, on behalf of the Surfrider Foundation, an environmentally minded surfer group based in San Clemente, Calif., sued two pulp mills for polluting the Humboldt Bay break. As a result, in August 1991 nearly $5.8 million in fines were levied against the mills, the third-largest fine in the 20-year history of the Federal Clean Water Act. In addition, the mills were ordered to make improvements that would help reduce toxic emissions to meet EPA standards. It was estimated these changes could cost each mill up to $50 million. The companies were required to cover Surfrider's $500,000 legal costs and ante up $350,000 to help carry out a five-year beach-improvement plan.

"The term surfing organization used to be an oxymoron," says Massara, 31, Surfrider's in-house counsel. "But with medical waste washing ashore, our beaches closing, our public shoreline disappearing to condo developments, water quality deteriorating—surfers have got to fight. This bites for everyone, but for surfers, man, it's destroying our life-style. When you're surfing you're in it, you know? Surfers are environmentalists whether they wanna be or not."

That makes sense: If you swallow too much sewage, you stop surfing. And if surfers believe anything, they believe they'll never stop surfing. That is why membership in the Surfrider Foundation, which was founded in the fall of 1984, is more than 20,000. "We put our membership into two general categories," says Jake Grubb, Surfrider's executive director. "There are the Soul Patrol and the High Octanes. The Soul Patrol guys surf every day; long-boarding, quiet dudes. The High Octanes are the high-powered, high-income professionals, short-boarding guys who want radical change. In addition, there's the third of our members who are under 21; you mix these categories together, and it gets interesting."

Surfrider's programs reflect its members' divergent goals. While some fight for coastal access and a repeal of arbitrary beach fees in California, others help implement the POOP (Protect Our Ocean Planet) unit, a science program offered at more than 100 junior and senior high schools in California that focuses on the effects of sewage and bacteria in the ocean. But one of Surfrider's most notorious actions was a paddle protest last June in southwestern France. Led by three-time world professional surfing champ Tom Curren, about 250 surfers from coastal France, Spain and Portugal paddled their boards down three miles of the Adour River to call attention to the polluted waterway that empties into the Atlantic Ocean near Curren's home near Biarritz. "It was pretty fun," said Curren. "We paddled, yelling and making noise and had a monster beach party afterward. But we also raised about $4,000, got on national TV and into a few national magazines and made a lot of people aware of the pollution problems in coastal Basque country. They took us seriously."

Being taken seriously isn't always easy for surfers. Recently, when Surfrider challenged California's beach-access fees (these vary from beach to beach, and some beaches have none), State Deputy Attorney General Joseph Barbieri argued that Surfrider's only interest was "an unstated premise that [the state] has an obligation to provide free parking."

Massara disagrees, saying, "Some people think we can be dismissed as surfers fighting for our right to surf. But we're fighting for clean water and coastline for everyone. These public beach fees just sent people trekking through people's yards and vulnerable wetlands to get to the water."

But in spite of Surfrider's successes, getting its members to organize for a cause has sometimes been as difficult as herding cats, though the involvement of surfers like Curren, top-ranked Kelly Slater and last year's No. 2 pro, Brad Gerlach, has helped. Gerlach, though no longer competing professionally, is a leader of two of the most important recent movements in the sport—nude surfing and surf tithing. Nude surfing is...well, you can pretty much picture it. As for tithing, Gerlach gave more than 10% of his U.S. professional winnings in '91 to Surfrider, Grubb said.

Gerlach likens the surfer environmental movement to the antilogging movement in the Pacific Northwest. "If I lived among the trees, I'd protect the trees," he says. "But I live in the water; I spend most of my waking moments there. We're kind of like dolphins that came to land to explain what it's really like to live in the water, you know, like fish. But fish can't come up and say, 'Hey, guys, what's up?' So we're the closest thing to them."

With plain talk like that, it's no wonder that Surfrider is expanding to places in the world where English isn't spoken. Curren is taking Surfrider's fight to the Canary Islands, where the local government's construction of jetties is destroying perfectly good waves. In the U.S., Surfrider is pressing for a town's or a county's right to determine whether or not to charge access fees—which pay for beach maintenance and lifeguards—to California's public beaches. (Currently, the state makes the decision.) It is asking for permanent designation of beachfront parks in North Carolina and Florida, helping the Sierra Club in their efforts to sue water-polluting dairy farms in Hawaii and negotiating for the restoration of a reef in El Segundo, Calif., which had been damaged by an oil refinery.

Not that members are seen as surf angels by everyone. Surfrider's opposition to a 1,100-acre development on the North Shore of Oahu—the mecca of surfing with the holy trinity of breaks: Sunset Beach, Waimea Bay and the Pipeline—is viewed with suspicion by one of surfing's early heroes, Rick Grigg. Grigg, 55, is a coral reef specialist and professor of oceanography at the University of Hawaii. Grigg rejects Surfrider's concern that runoff from the development's construction will endanger coral reefs and near-shore fisheries. "The longshore currents are so strong that sediment runoff will be swept away from the shore so fast that it will have no impact on the fisheries or coral reefs," Grigg says. While Grigg agrees with Surfrider's intentions, he objects to what he believes is the organization's tendency to publicize its claims before thoroughly researching them. "No one wants to disagree with them because their cause is so noble—who wants polluted water?—but they're blowing their credibility right out of the water."

But Surfrider's environmental director, Scott Jenkins, argues that Grigg himself isn't entirely credibile. "Ricky was a great surfer, one of my heroes," says Jenkins, 42, a coastal engineer at the Scripps Institute of Oceanography in La Jolla, Calif., and a specialist in sediment transportation ("Just say I'm a guy who studies motion in the ocean"). "But Ricky has testified on behalf of a number of Hawaiian developers. It's disappointing but not surprising to see him aligned against us." Grigg, however, says he testified on behalf of the North Shore developers only because he found Surfrider's claims to be so greatly exaggerated, adding that he's not even in favor of the project.

A less controversial item on Surfrider's agenda is the Blue Water Task Force, a legion of test-tube-toting surfers who will sample the water wherever they go, checking its coliform bacteria count with EPA-approved devices. "We've already got a few California radio stations giving daily water-quality alerts," says Jenkins. "There are about 1,000 kits out there now. I think the average Joe is starting to look at surfers in a different light. Maybe their initial reaction was 'Yeah, right, here come the surfers,' but I think now they know we're really making a difference."



These days no one would go in search of the perfect wave at Humboldt Bay's North Jetty.



Legions of concerned Europeans took part in the Surfrider Adour River protest in June.



The noisy demonstration called attention to environmental issues confronting France.

Cory Johnson is a writer for Time Inc.'s in-house news magazine, FYI.