Sustainability through surfboards

Sustainability through surfboards

Kelly Slater, one of the world’s great surf competitors, says the sport “is all about where your mind’s at”, which is a sentiment that might occupy the minds of the surf fraternity as they think about the impact of climate change on the oceans.

The Ocean Lovers Festival, which recently took place in Sydney, highlighted a number of ways conservationists are taking on ocean problems.

Among the fighters drafted in to protect our oceans is an unlikely one who knows her intimately: surfers.

A coastline of approximately 34,000 kilometres has made Australia one of the world’s leading surfing destinations. This lifestyle is an essential part of the Australian coastal fabric and has captivated millions of Australians. But do surfers care about the ocean by default?

WaveChanger is a “Surfers for Climate” program. Its founder and program director Tom Wilson, who wrote a thesis on environmental themes and consumer behaviours in the surfing industry, wanted to see this relationship in action: “It seems fairly obvious that surfers care a lot about beaches and the ocean, especially their local breaks, although whether that fully translates into actual low impact behaviours is another thing altogether.”

Being frequently in the ocean, they are in a unique position to educate others about the marine ecosystem – something Wilson is taking advantage of with WaveChanger, which aims to reduce the environmental impact of surfing.

You can start with the surfboard itself.

A panel session at the ocean lovers festival. Credit: supplied.
A panel session at the Ocean Lovers Festival. Credit: supplied.

“Surfing is a sport that makes you think about being at one with nature, but the reality is, there are a lot of issues with sustainability. These issues are evident across the entire lifecycle of the surfboard,” says Professor Marc in het Panhuis from the University of Wollongong.

Wilson told the Ocean Lovers Festival that these issues are not only evident in the making of the board, but the sport itself: “Materials in surfboards, manufacturing methods, onshore versus offshore production, the number of surfboards we own, can we shift to a leasing model where boards are returned to manufacturers? Can surfers reduce the amount of travel we do? These are all themes that can be discussed.”

Surfing sustainability issues are being addressed at the University of Wollongong through its Surf Flex Lab, which has been pioneering research in surf engineering. A focus is to make boards more eco-friendly, but this has its own problems.

“Boards made from more sustainable materials, such as wood, are fun to ride, but do not deliver the performance many surfers expect. And they’re usually heavier than comparable products,” explains in het Panhuis.

“Surfing is a sport that makes you think about being at one with nature, but the reality is, there are a lot of issues with sustainability. These issues are evident across the entire lifecycle of the surfboard.”

Professor Marc in het Panhuis

Wilson hopes that Australia’s surfing industry will lead by example when it comes to sustainable living, and WaveChanger attended Surf Flex Lab’s Surfing as a Science event to explore how sustainability ties into surfing.

At the Ocean Lovers Festival, he continued this conversation with many surfers who were unaware of how integral sustainability is to the sport.

“Aussie surfers can be part of the solution by following Wavechanger and Surfers for Climate, also check out the great work by Surfrider, Sustainable Surf, Surfers Against Sewage (UK), and the many others doing great work in [the sustainability space],” he says.

“I’d love to see … Aussie surfers [lead by example]. It would be something to be immensely proud of, and young people can identify with this movement, as they’re already doing with the youth climate strikes, and expressing such passion for protecting our planet.”

University of NSW Associate Professor Jes Sammut also hopes Australia is a leader of sustainability in a different way: seafood.

The fish that surfers see while out catching a wave sometimes end up on the fish-and-chips they might buy after a good session out in the water.

The overfishing, habitat destruction, and unsustainable bycatch of marine life has affected the health of coastal communities around the world, with more than three-quarters of our global fish stocks being either over-exploited or fished right up to their limit.

Associate professor jes sammut believes sustainability has become part of australian seafood branding. Credit: supplied.
Jes Sammut believes sustainability has become part of Australian seafood branding. Credit: supplied.

But Sammut does believe sustainability has become part of Australian seafood branding: “Australia’s seafood sustainability status is exemplary compared to many other countries. In my opinion, our fisheries are sustainable, mainly because we have a seafood industry that values the resource and doesn’t want to kill the goose that lays the golden egg, and because of our well-designed fisheries management laws and policies.”

To ensure stocks are not overexploited, Australian commercial fisheries are tightly regulated.  Industry bodies ensure wild-caught seafood maintains a high sustainability status and states set quotas and gear restrictions for commercial fishing in accordance with scientific investigations. 

State governments also strictly regulate recreational fishing, which can also negatively affect wild stocks. Yet Sammut says there is room for improvement, and some of it comes from educating the public.

“The public is increasingly caring about seafood sustainability, but more awareness of what sustainability means, and why it is important, is needed. Fortunately, there is increasing investment in raising awareness and also empowering consumers to make better choices,” he says.

“For example, there are sustainable seafood buyer guides and websites to help people select sustainably farmed or caught seafood. Retailers also market their sustainably produced seafood knowing that people care about what they eat and how it was produced.

“But, there is still a lot that needs to be done to make it easier for the public to choose sustainably produced seafood at the retail end of the supply chain, and also in restaurants and other eateries.”

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