Wave goodbye: the battle to protect Australia’s surf breaks

There’s a reason surfers like to keep their best breaks a secret.

For decades, wave riders have blazed a trail into little-known coastal towns – and in their wake come the planners and developers.

When Clint Bryan bought his house 40 minutes north of Perth city, one consideration was paramount: it had to be near his favourite surf break.

And sure enough, his Kallaroo home is just five minutes’ walk from the Indian Ocean. The suburb name is a Noongar word meaning “road to the water”.

But by the end of this summer, the waves that Bryan built his life around will disappear as the beach is redeveloped for the $252m Ocean Reef Marina.

The marina is within the Marmion marine park and will transform 1.5km of coastline into shops, restaurants, boat moorings, a protected beach and new homes. The local state MP, Emily Hamilton, says it will create “thousands of jobs” and inject $3bn into the Western Australia economy.

But it will also kill three surf breaks – Mossies, Big Rock and Pylons.

The community group Save Ocean Reef says it will mount a legal challenge to the project because it is damaging the marine park, and a petition to construct an artificial reef has grown to nearly 2,500 signatures.

Ocean Reef has been a surf destination since at least the 1950s, when it was little more than sand dunes and beach shacks, with just a caravan park nearby.

“It’s like we are losing our playing field and the grassroots waves we learned to surf on,” says Bryan, a 43-year-old aviation rescue firefighter.

“It’s the end of an era and our group [Ocean Reef Artificial Reef] just wants the opportunity to keep the surf community alive in our area.”

Facebook Twitter The sea wall under construction at Ocean Reef. Photograph: Duncan Wright/The Guardian

The fragile magic of the break

Sean Doherty, the chair of the advocacy group Surf Rider Foundation, says dozens of surf breaks around the country are at risk from development or sand dune work.

“The pressure on the coastline is growing,” Doherty says.

“For every surf break that is in some kind of danger, it is the result of some development nearby and it takes different forms.”

In some places the developments are similar to those proposed for Ocean Reef.

On 1 May almost 700 surfers paddled out to protest against the development of eco-cabins, a conference centre and a restaurant on crown land near a surf spot called the Farm in Killalea, south of Wollongong.

Opponents say the state-funded development will impinge on a national surfing reserve that was declared in 2009, although the proponents of the development insist it will affect less than 2% of the reserve.

Facebook Twitter Brazilian Gabriel Medina in action during the 2021 World Surfing Championship event at Narrabeen, a break the Surf Rider Foundation says is under threat. Photograph: Cameron Spencer/Getty Images

But Doherty says the most endangered breaks now are Narrabeen and South Narrabeen on Sydney’s northern beaches, where construction has begun on a 7m-high 1.3km concrete seawall to save 49 properties, a club and a car park built right on the beach.

While the seawall will protect homes from erosion and storm surge, it will also affect the flow of sand.

A 7m wall has gone up on a Sydney beach: are we destroying public space to save private property? Read more

For waves to form, the movement of sand, which helps shape the seabed, is crucial.

Waves break when there is a reef or an accumulation of sand under the water, making it shallow enough for the incoming swell to rise up and form waves.

In a natural system, sand blows in and out to sea or is brought in by ocean currents.

But Doherty says sea walls, houses and vegetation are increasingly anchoring sand to the shore, taking away the lifeblood of waves.

“The magic qualities that make a good surf break are quite ephemeral and quite easily disturbed and changed, often as a result of development,” Doherty says.

The foundation says other breaks are also threatened by proposals for seawalls, including at Wamberal on the NSW Central Coast and Byron Bay, nine hours north, where locals have been fighting the suggestion for years.

Last year, authorities were forced to install emergency sandbagging and close Main and Clarkes beaches at Byron, where erosion caused by natural processes, development on frontal dune systems and changing weather patterns have wreaked havoc.

Further threats to surf breaks in NSW, Queensland, Victoria and Western Australia come from climate change, overcrowding and water pollution, the foundation says.

Facebook Twitter Erosion damage to Clarkes beach at Byron Bay in December 2020. Photograph: Dan Peled/AAP

A wealth of benefits

In 2010, New Zealand became one of only two countries in the world to legally protect surf breaks (Peru is the other).

In Australia, neither state nor federal environment legislation protects waves.

Ana Manero, an environmental economist at the Australian National University who researches surfing economics, says the legal gap is a “massive blind spot”, but legislation is not the only way to defend surf breaks.

“We don’t have environmental laws to protect surfing resources in Australia, but we have an economic argument,” Manero says.

“Surfing brings a wealth of benefits, it makes places more desirable to live in, it is good for the local community, so the question is: when waves are impacted, how is that loss of value going to be accounted for?”

Facebook Twitter Wild surf at Snapper Rocks, where an accidentally formed ‘superbank’ has actually improved the break. Photograph: Dan Peled/AAP

There are an estimated 2.5 million recreational surfers in Australia and surf tourism expenditure was estimated to be about $91bn a year globally before the pandemic.

“It’s crucial we understand the real value of surfing before we lose the many benefits it brings, not only for Australia’s surfing community but also for the hundreds of coastal towns where surfing underpins the local economy and lifestyle,” Manero says.

For decades, environmental economics has been applied to quantify the value of recreation activities, such as scuba diving and fishing.

Manero hopes surfing research will help inform better decisions when developments affect waves.

“The problem for policymakers is that surfing’s ‘intangible’ benefits – such as mental health or social connections – are much harder to measure than jobs and retail sales – but I can tell you that they translate into millions of dollars,” she says.

Manero says protecting waves does not mean leaving beaches untouched – there are many examples where the building of groynes, piers or sand dredging have improved the quality of waves.

At Snapper Rocks on the Gold Coast, a “superbank” was unexpectedly formed after work to remove sand from the entrance to the Tweed River.

“During the planning process, if we could put a little bit of brain power into understanding how waves form and the benefits they bring, then we would have a better chance of improving the wellbeing of coastal communities,” Manero says.

“It is difficult, but it can be done.”