Anyone who has spent time of late in the beach-access parking lots of the Tofino / Ucluelet area can hardly have helped but notice the proliferation of blue-and-white Respect the Beach: Surfrider Foundation Canada bumper stickers. Along with the flyers stacked on the counters of the local surf shops, the adhesive awareness campaigns showing up on the trucks of old Toyotas and the back doors of 80's-vintage vans are perhaps the most visible signs that Canada's Surfrider Foundation chapter is finally together and prospering. Now nearing the two-year anniversary of its inception, the Canadian segment of the organization that functions as the surf world's enviro-conscience is steadily becoming a stronger and increasingly active presence in the coast's surf zones.
As a brief backgrounder, the Surfrider Foundation is a non-profit organization, driven largely by surfers, whose stated mission is "the preservation and enjoyment of the world's oceans, waves, and beaches, for all people, through conservancy, advocacy, research, and education." It was founded in the mid-80's by Glenn Hening, a Southern California surfer, thinker, and mystic of sorts who felt that "surfing needed a voice free of the commercial and competitive influence of pro surfing and the surf industry." Since its birth, Surfrider has experienced exponential growth, and is now comprised of over 50 chapters and 30,000 members in the USA, plus international chapters in Europe, South America, Asia, and Australia. It's a soulful and highly specialized entity that has been remarkably successful at directing the attentions and assets of surfers towards environmental issues that impact them directly - issues such as water quality, open waterfront access, and the ecological integrity of shoreline landscapes.
Essentially, the Foundation's mission is about keeping The Experience as pure as possible, and preserving it for the generations of surfers and ocean people who will come after our own. And it's about surfers stepping up and shouldering responsibility for the environment that we immerse ourselves in. The ocean isn't a skatepark - it can't be swept clean at the end of the day, and it's not something that should be merely exploited for enjoyment and then forgotten about. The connection between surfer and ocean runs deeper than that; and the surf community is, without a doubt, one of the constituencies most affected by ocean water quality and shoreline conditions. The water, after all, is our medium -- we have to swim in the stuff and get it in our eyes and ears and swallow it when we get worked; we float in lineups beside all sorts of drifting refuse and Industrial Age detritus; we're the first to notice changes in water colour and composition; we're the ones who suffer the rashes brought on by pollutants and bacterial blooms; we walk along beaches and trails marred by crap and garbage; and we're the ones who have to deal with developments and encroachments that threaten the breaks we've adopted as our sanctums and our playgrounds. It's a weird paradox that the ocean can be so ass-kickingly powerful but at the same time be such a precarious ecosystem. But in the face of the oceans' deterioration, Surfrider is a response; it's an apparatus for channeling the environmental concerns of the surf community, and its strength, as is showing in Canada, has always been in its grassroots membership.
The Foundation's structure is highly subdivided, based on chapters that enable small, cohesive groups of local surfers to focus their efforts on issues that directly affect the local surfing and ocean recreation populace. Surfrider chapters follow the laws of basic cellular biology: whenever they get too large, they subdivide again. It's a working model of the environmental movement's 'think globally, act locally' ethos, and it conveniently avoids the unwieldy size, conflicting mandates, and politicization that can become problematic for activist groups. With solid structure and a solid cause, the Foundation has gotten whole-hearted support from the surf community over the years, and has become a well-known presence in surf culture; in Surfer's August 2002 issue, Chris Evans, the Foundation's Executive Director, was named one of the 25 most powerful people in surfing. And although it's commonly plugged by the surf industry and the surf media, the best indication of Surfrider's true integrity and importance is the fact that it's supported by thousands and thousands of everyday regular-joe and regular-jane surfers - people who care deeply about the future of the oceans and don't give two rips about press coverage or image. Not a bunch of airy-fairy greenies and lefties and naïve tree-huggers, Surfrider has always been an organization that brings together surfers from all walks of life to work together towards a common end - and in Canada, it's an outlet for surfers who want to contribute somehow, but don't necessarily feel like tossing money towards Greenpeace or the WCWC.
Although Surfrider has had Canadian members for years, and there had been sporadic attempts to organize north of the border, an independent Canadian chapter was, as current chapter chairperson Dawn Alex says, "conspicuously lacking." Since Canada has a healthy population of surfers - and more miles of coastline that any nation on earth - it didn't make a lot of sense that a Canadian chapter didn't exist. And, although she's not one to turn attention towards herself, the efforts of Alex, who withdrew from an advertising career in Toronto to live and surf in Tofino, were key to the Canada chapter's official birth.
Things began in late 2000, when Alex met with Surfrider director Evans in San Clemente. A few months later, Evans was in Tofino and was able to witness the area's coastal environment, talk to local surfers, and experience what Alex describes as "a huge emotional commitment to the sport and the environment, and an incredible amount of interest in Surfrider." The time was right, and the location was right - Tofino Town is proximal to a number of popular breaks and is the year-round home of substantial numbers of surfers. The Canada chapter, after the central organization had given the go-ahead to assume chapter status, bolstered Surfrider's presence in the Northwest, adding to existing chapters in Oregon, Westport, and Port Angeles.
The Surfrider organization itself was strongly supportive of the efforts to get the Canada chapter off the ground, and Alex was unrestrained in her praise of Surfrider's head office folks when coastalbc.com talked to her in July. Ed Mazzarella, Surfrider's Director of Chapters, says that "we were in 100% support of a Canada chapter…because our mission is to preserve and protect the oceans and the coastlines, and it's part of fulfilling that; ideally, it'd be great to have chapters from, you know, the Bering Sea all the way down to Baja. But that Tofino group up there, the people we have representing us are doing a great job, we're like, 'God, they totally grasp it.' We figured Tofino would be the base there, and we'd see what happens, see how it goes…and it's been great."
Since its beginnings, the Canada chapter has met with hugely positive responses from surfers, from the local surf industry, and from the Tofino community at large. "We couldn't ask for better support than we're getting from Allister and J.P.," (the owners of Storm and Live to Surf, respectively) says Alex. Surfrider is promoted by several of the Tofino-based surf schools, and the town itself has been super receptive - almost every business in town employs surfers, and businesses are recognizing how important surfing (and, by extension, a clean coastal environment) is to their livelihood. Alex believes that "surfing is an aspect of the community and the culture that has to be supported and acknowledged…it's part of why people come here. Even if they're not surfing, it's the atmosphere, the mystique." And anyone who's been out on one of those grey days with the mist and spray drifting through the trees and a good swell peeling off the low-tide sandbars knows exactly what Alex is talking about. A pristine coast is an incredible resource - for the pure pleasure of locals, but also for the economic injection that tourists and transient surfers provide - and a number of local businesses have approached Surfrider Canada with offers of help. As a gesture of goodwill and an acknowledgement of the town's support, the Canada chapter determined that its first major action would be on a project that would benefit not only surfers, but the community as a whole.
It should be noted that Surfrider is more than a feel-good organization, the kind where people who think they're eco-friendly send their checks in once a year (being careful, of course, to get the tax receipt back), throw on the t-shirt, slap the decal on their SUV, and feel like they care and that they've done their part and are somehow participating in the salvation of the world. Going beyond lip-service, Surfrider is committed to making practical progress, and in keeping with that, the Canada chapter has put its efforts behind an improvement to sanitation at the Cox Bay access - which, like certain other popular Western Canada breaks, has often suffered from the combined effects of crowd pressures and carelessness. After packed-out days, you can't miss the waste, human and otherwise. (The damage caused by last year's Surf Jam was a major factor in Tofino town council's reluctance to let this year's go ahead.) Emotionally and financially, Surfrider Canada is supporting the construction of a public toilet facility at the access trail; it's something that had been planned prior to Surfrider's involvement, but the chapter's funding and pressure are expediting the project. The toilets and garbage cans will be a big improvement on the status quo, and is exactly the kind of project that the Foundation espouses: the small, practical steps that can be taken to keep our beaches, waters, and coastal access routes clean. The worth of the project was put most bluntly by Jenny Hudnall: "it's so my kids won't have to walk through shit to get to the beach." When completed, the benefits will reach the whole community, as many non-surfers also use the access trail on a daily basis.
The Surfrider Foundation's work is good work, and if all goes well, its Canadian scope and membership will continue to grow. Alex sees a real presence in the Victoria area as the next necessary step; and, ideally, other ocean recreation populations (such as kayakers and the windsurf / kitesurf communities in Vancouver and Victoria) will align themselves with the Canada chapter. Surfrider's mandate is simple and accessible - the preservation of oceans and beaches for all people - and it would be a valuable thing to find solidarity and strength in numbers with other groups who share the concerns of the surf community. As their website notes, Surfrider is "made up of wave riders and ocean enthusiasts of all kinds."
It would also be a valuable thing if Surfrider Canada's future effects reached beyond the tangible; as it grows, it will assist in keeping environmental issues front and center in the collective consciousness of Canadian surfers. Alex believes that surfers are, for the most part, remarkably mindful; the beaches are clean considering the amount of traffic they receive, and most of the mess and garbage present on the shoreline has been washed in from the shipping lanes. But every little bit is a concern, and surfers would do well (as the Surf Jam mess showed) to remind themselves of the leave-no-trace ethics that were pioneered by prophets like Yvon Chouinard. It comes down to ownership and respect and responsibility; if surfers feel that they have a stake in the ocean and its surroundings, they'll be careful to minimize their impact.
While it's mostly driven by Tofino locals and has yet to gain serious visibility outside the area, the continued growth and presence of Surfrider Canada will also hopefully have the by-effect of encouraging tourists and non-local surfers to be more responsible; in general, it's not the everyday users who are creating mess (because no-one wants to tip-toe day after day around brown piles, toilet paper, plastic garbage bags, and discarded packs of smokes.) If the Respect the Beach campaign reminds transients that the people who are at the breaks day-in and day-out have to deal with the crap that's left behind, then it will be a significant accomplishment for Surfrider and a significant victory for the aesthetics of the coastal environment.
The condition of the Canadian coast, for the most part, is still incredible. We're blessed with incredible water, and one needs only to take a look at the ominous Southern California or New York coastlines to realize how spoiled rotten we are to be surfing breaks that, for the most part, look and feel like full-on wilderness. But with privilege comes responsibility, and surfers need to be aware of what, to use a sewage metaphor, may be coming down the pipe. Despite the generally poor economic conditions in B.C., coastal development is continuing to increasing in pace and scale, and the political climate leans towards the quick buck instead of long-term sustainability. It's not too hard to imagine a worst-case scenario of a Huntington-style pier reaching out to Lovekin Rock, complete with amusement park and rotating restaurant. Nor is it too hard to imagine flus and infections from prolonged exposure to tainted water - the flesh of an orca that washed ashore this winter in Port Angeles had unprecedented PCB levels - or Jeremy Koreski's water shots filtered through an L.A. County style brown murk. As Dawn says, "there's no upside to ignorance," and it's highly unlikely the crowd pressures are going to decrease in the foreseeable future. But as crowds and encroachments start to affect our beaches, Surfrider Canada will be doing its best to keep surfers aware of the issues, and of the necessity of standing up for our oceans and waterfronts.
The Surfrider Canada chapter, coming into existence some 30-odd years into the history of Canadian surfing, is another sign of the community's maturation, and should be further evidence that our community is much, much more than what the media stereotypes us as - a bunch of burnouts, hippies, adrenalin freaks, ex-loggers, and antisocialites who don't care about anything except pot and the next pumping northwest. Surfers here are diverse and determined and soulful and massively capable, as the Canada chapter will probably show in coming years. But attention needs to be paid, and it should be remembered that things here won't just automatically be some pure northern Santosha in the future. We've got it good, but we may have to fight tooth and nail and fin to keep it that way. There are threats, and the changes that are occurring on this coast are definitely not all good. But Surfrider is a positive and unselfish force. So the next time you go out, take an extra long look at the shoreline and the forest behind you and the sea lions popping their heads up out past the lineup; and when you duckdive on the paddle out, open your eyes, look around underwater, and maybe think twice about sending that Surfrider subscription in.
Malcolm Johnson / coastalbc.com
Contact Dawn Alex and Surfrider Canada at firstname.lastname@example.org