Not only are coral reefs crucial for the survival of our oceans, they are a surfer’s heaven and hell. Those mammoth waves—that’s all them. The deep cuts after wiping out—that’s them too. In the second installment of our series on coral reef preservation, we speak to Dr. Chad Nelsen, CEO of Surfrider Foundation, about the love/hate relationship surfers have for corals, and what can be done to protect these underwater ecosystems from destruction.

Coral reefs protect the shores from floods and other potential disasters, but they are also responsible for wave formation. In fact, they are responsible for the biggest waves on the planet: Jaws Surf Break in Maui for instance. Could you tell us a little bit about the love/hate relationship surfers have for corals?

Many of the world’s greatest surf spots are coral reef breaks. There’s a very famous break in Fiji, a place called Cloud Break, it’s one of the world’s greatest waves. There’s another amazing wave in Tahiti, called Teahupo’o, it’s an extraordinary wave. If you look online you will be amazed. Jaws, of course, and Pipeline is another famous wave in Hawaii- maybe the most famous surf spot in the world that is based on a coral reef.

For a wave to break in the classic fashion for a surfer—where the wave peels over, so they can get in the barrel inside the tube, which is the ultimate thing—it has to break in shallow water, so they tend to be coral reefs because there’s often steep shelf. Surfers love these coral reefs because they’re responsible for the wave. Of course, if they wipe out, and they fall, they’re going to get cut-up by the coral too. My sense is that if you talk to most surfers they would have much more love for coral than hate because they are responsible for these amazing waves. They also make up one of the most beautiful ecosystems where people can see the fish; you can even see them when you’re surfing.

There’s another place actually where Surfrider did a campaign where surfers protected coral reefs—a big wave spot in Puerto Rico called “Tres Palmas.” In that area the coral reefs were threatened by development, and surfers protected them through a marine reserve. The fact that these waves would be lost if coral reefs die makes surfers conservationists. I think the threats to coral reefs should be very alarming to surfers because all of these world class waves, these global treasures, will die if the coral dies. The coral reef has that structure, and that’s what’s making waves break the way they do, if they die, that structure goes away, and the wave will suffer.

“All of these world class waves, these global treasures, will die if the coral dies.”

Climate change and sedimentation from coastal development are some of the big threats to coral reefs. We’re working on trying to minimize those impacts. Overfishing is another threat. Those are some of the big threats to coral reefs. At Surfrider we’re trying to encourage surfers to get involved in coral reef protection for their value as ecosystems, and also because they produce these amazing waves.

When coral reefs reproduce, they move and shift location a little bit, that’s what also makes waves change location a little bit. For example Jaws or Pipeline, are they moving a lot, or is it just a couple of millimeters?

It’s not moving enough to have a discernable, notable impact. That said, coral reefs are growing as the sea levels rise. Under normal conditions the coral reef can keep pace. They are very sensitive to temperature and light, so they need to stay at a certain depth. As the ocean rises, the coral reefs build so they keep the depth the same. That’s actually good because it’s keeping the surf consistent. I think that if the waves shifted a little bit, that would be ok.

So the fact that they’re moving is actually good for the surf in general.

Are there any projects that Surfrider is involved in regarding coral reefs? Or is it part of a common, more global awareness program?

It’s a little bit of both. We’ve been involved in a project that I mentioned, Tres Palmas in Puerto Rico, where we’re protecting elkhorn coral reefs. We’ve done some work in Florida to protect coral reefs there. We’ve done some work in Hawaii as well. We don’t have Surfrider in Fiji, Indonesia, the South Pacific, and some of these other places, so in that case it’s just more about global awareness. Our membership travels around the world, surfing all these places so we want to help them understand what the threats are and what they can do. Cutting carbon emissions and climate issues are one way you can help protect surf breaks by your behavior at home.

What did you do in Florida for example?

In Florida we’ve been focused on two main areas, one is improving water quality to make sure that wastewater and sewage isn’t impacting coral reefs, and the other is called beach nourishment, and they pump sand back onto the beach. Beaches are eroding, so they pump sand back onto the beach, and if they don’t do it right, the silts can impact the coral reefs. We added one project where they had to take the bad sand out, and put in clean sand to make sure it didn’t impact the reefs.

Who were involved? Volunteers? And how many were there?

We have a network of chapters. In the case of the beach nourishment project in Florida, they teamed up with a law firm, and we sued the Corps of Engineers on the project to make them clean up the mess. It was our Palm Beach County chapter in Florida.

How does Surfrider work on a day-to-day basis?

We have 84 chapters around the US. For example, the Palm Beach County Chapter is comprised of local citizens: surfers, beach goers, people concerned about the community who want to get active. So we formed a chapter, which is all volunteer-based. Our chapters do a couple of different things, they do outreach and awareness in their communities, they hold meetings, they take on specific campaigns- in this case a beach fill project called Reach 8- and they do stewardship: beach cleanups, dune planting, caring for their local community. In the headquarters of Surfrider, which is paid staff, our job is to support those local chapters with science, legal support, and organizing support—teaching them how to run an effective volunteer organization, providing them with science and policy background to be effective advocates for the ocean, and then providing them with legal support if necessary.

“Surfers are primarily concerned with water quality and water pollution. That’s because it can get them sick.”

How is Surfrider funded?

We have about 50,000 members. We get grants mostly from private foundations, membership, major donors and corporate partners—30% grants, 20% membership, 20% corporate partners, 20% major donors, then 10% is a mix of a number of things.

Back to corals, is that the issue surfers are primarily concerned with?

I think surfers are primarily concerned with water quality and water pollution. That’s because it can get them sick. So it has an immediate impact on them. Of course that same water pollution can be one of the problems for coral reefs. Water pollution certainly in Florida and in Hawaii is affecting coral reefs in those places. My sense is that the impacts to coral reefs and its relationship to surf is something that not that many surfers think about, but probably should. I think they may take them for granted.

The impact is very slow to change. It’s not something that’s typically a dramatic impact. In the case of Puerto Rico, the surfers were concerned about the impact, mostly from overfishing, coastal development and sedimentation impacting the reefs. They came together to organize to protect the reefs there. So that is a case where surfers were active and it made a big difference.

World class waves shaped by coral reefs:

Tavarua, Fiji
Teahupoo, Tahiti
Pipeline, Oahu, Hawaii
Jaws, Maui, Hawaii
Uluwatu, Indonesia
Tres Palmas, Rincón, Puerto Rico
Many spots in the Maldives, Mentawai Islands (Indonesia)

All photos: courtesy of Surfrider Foundation.

Coral reefs locations: Image 1: Hawaii / Image 2: Puerto Rico / Image 3 & 4: Hawaii.