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Why Marine Protected Areas Benefit Surfers

North County surfer, marine conservationist and author Garth Murphy discusses why the new system of marine protected areas in San Diego County help surfers and surfing spots.

Editor's Note: On Tuesday evening, Southwest Surf was awarded 3rd Place by the San Diego Press Club in the Best Column from a daily newspaper or website category.

Any North County or southern Baja vet most likely has run into Garth Murphy intensely evaluating surf conditions from shore and gracefully riding the best waves of the season. A California icon who partnered with Mike Doyle and Rusty Miller in their infamous and pioneering Surf Research company, Garth is the author of the epic novel of California, The Indian Lover, and the son of noted fisheries biologist Garth I. Murphy, who was La Jolla's Scripps Institution of Oceanography's first PhD, and a professor at the University of Hawaii.

Garth, who has lived, surfed and advocated for coastal and marine protection in Hawaii, Australia and Baja California, was a member of the California Department of Fish and Game's Marine Life Protection Act Initiative (MLPAI) Regional Stakeholder Group.

As a result of that effort a new network of marine protected areas (MPAs) was established in Southern California with reserves at Swami’s, Black’s-Scripps, South La Jolla, Cabrillo-Point Loma and the Tijuana River Mouth. These MPAs conserve key marine ecosystems such as kelp beds, reefs, sea grass beds – the ecological features that provide the foundation for some of our very best waves.

Serge Dedina: Why should surfers care about marine conservation and creating MPAs in Southern California?

Garth Murphy: Because we have 300 wave-rich surf spots to choose from and over a million Southern California surfers average 20 surfs a year – for 20 million yearly immersions in what usually happens to be our ocean's most bio-diverse coastal marine habitats. The Marine Life Protection Act recognizes traditional surfing as a compatible recreational use of the ocean resource, permitted in protected areas except at mammal haul-outs, bird roosts and estuaries. A network of Marine Protected Areas, by protecting and conserving complete coastal ecosystems and habitat, enhances the biodiversity and abundance of marine life, enriching our experience, while minimizing and controlling potential habitat-destructive human activities, which directly affect us.

Dedina: Why is preserving marine ecosystems of Southern California so important for surfers?

Murphy: Southern California surfers and marine life share natural coastal ocean habitats of every important class: estuaries and river mouths, beaches and inter-tidal zones, surf grass and eel grass beds on composite reefs like Cardiff; rare cobble reefs like Trestles, Rincon and Malibu; rocky reefs like Windansea and Laguna; submarine canyons like Blacks, and sand bars at Newport and Pacific Beach; as well as man-made habitats like the Piers at Huntington and Imperial Beach, rock jetties like the Wedge and Hollywood by the Sea, and artificial reefs.

As a boon to surfers, thick coastal kelp forest canopies, which shelter the greatest biodiversity of coastal marine species, also protect us from the afternoon winds, refining ocean surface texture and grooming the swells to extend our surfing hours and the carrying capacity of affected surf spots. Habitat-based marine protected areas preserve everything within their boundaries, including our cherished surf spots.

Dedina: What about water quality? Would marine reserves help our efforts to keep beaches free from polluted runoff?

Murphy: Coastal ocean water quality is not just a function of land pollution runoff. Over-exploitation and depletion or collapse of important food web components causes imbalances that degrade marine ecosystems and make the ocean more vulnerable to disease outbreaks and opportunistic invasive species like stinging jellyfish, algae blooms and toxic red tides, diminishing water quality and habitat suitability for marine life and surfers.

On the contrary, robust, bio-diverse marine ecosystems with intact food webs are resilient, resisting and adapting to environmental change and pollution, maintaining water and habitat quality. Estuaries are marine life nurseries, fresh/salt water interfaces that empty into many of our finest surf spots. We absorb that same water through our eyes, ears, nose and mouths on duck-dives and wipeouts. Rebuilding and maintaining bio-diverse estuaries with a full range of marine life creates healthier nurseries, and encourages upstream compliance with pollution regulations. The result is better water quality for all of us.

Dedina: So in the end, how does preserving our marine heritage in Southern California benefit surfers?

Murphy: The California surfing style evolved in a unique marine environment of glassy peeling waves. Stylish surfing and our beach lifestyle have become an important part of California history and culture –and media focus – generating an endless wave of glossy-color surf magazines, surf videos and feature films. The success of the $7-plus billion surfing industry, centered in Southern California, depends on maintaining the high cultural value of the traditional California surfing experience: as exciting, invigorating exercise, as a get-away, as a sport, a meditation, a dance, a family get-together and photo opportunity –enhanced by a vibrantly alive and healthy ocean.

The ocean is Earth's largest and most accessible enduring wilderness. Regular contact with wilderness is a human, and especially American, cultural value, manifested today in the ocean by the popularity of surfing. A full and abundant spectrum of marine species – from whales to hermit crabs to phytoplankton – is an integral part of our ocean-wilderness experience.

Marine Protected Areas enhance ecosystem awareness by exposing us to a broad diversity of marine life. They encourage monitoring of potential problems and upstream compliance with complementary air and water quality regulations. The positive water quality and life-giving effects of marine protected areas are a valuable gift to the surfers and marine species who share them.

A different version of this interview originally appeared in Surfline.

Serge Dedina is executive director of WiLDCOAST, an international conservation team that conserves coastal and marine ecosystems and wildlife. He is the author of Wild Sea and Saving the Gray Whale.

Mike G October 31, 2012 at 02:56 AM
Exactly what revenue do surfers generate? They don't park in pay parking spaces. They don't buy jack from local shops and vendors. My fishing license was $50+ this year. How much is a surfing license? I have been fishing this coast for more than 30 years and NEVER have I had a conflict with a surfer while doing so. And while we're at it, do you think for even one second that Mexico gives a damn about our MLPA with regard to their systematic release of effluent that inevitably runs north into your precious MPA? As a fisherman, no one wants more than I to see a sustainable recreational fishery for myself and future generations. ANYONE that paid ANY attention to the processes that led to these ill-advised MPA's, knows they are based on at best flawed or worse NO science. The MPA's are a joke that just added more useless bureaucracy!
Mike G October 31, 2012 at 03:13 AM
Oil BS aside, do you really think that rod and reel recreational and sport fishing, especially in light of the already insane bag, slot, size and seasonal limitations are contributing to over-fishing and species decline? Umm NO!
Mum November 09, 2012 at 06:38 AM
Your beloved MLPA has cut the time I get to spend fishing with my children in half. Thanks for supporting the closing of Batiquitos at the 5... I know we were just killing it there.
Mike G November 10, 2012 at 03:38 AM
@J Wallace News Flash: No one is out there catching kelp. Rod and reel fishing does not harm a kelp bed. Actually fisherman appreciate kelp beds. They hold calicos, sheepsheads and many other edible species. Why would recreational fishermen want to jeopardize that? True sportsmen care far more about a sustainable fishery and the environment that supports it than any surfer ever will.
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