Surfers and environmentalists feared that the construction at Rincon, the village in Puerto Rico, would change the flow of sediment around the beach and bury a reef that created the surf break. Nelsen sought to show that without the reef, there would be no waves, no surfers and, ultimately, a big drop in tourism dollars.
“We found that people were buying second houses there just for the surfing,” said Linwood Pendleton, the Duke economist who assisted Nelsen and is a chief economist for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. “It was contributing literally millions of dollars a year to the local economy.”
Rincon and its world-class wave break, discovered by surfers in the late 1960s, embodies a cycle that’s as regular as the tides: Surfers trek to remote reaches of the globe in search of the perfect wave. They discover prized beaches. Word gets out. Tourists pile in. Developers seize land and opportunity. Construction alters the wave break. The surf loses its edge.
Surf advocates have long argued that Mother Nature is priceless, invoking geological and hydrological mechanics that distinguish the character and appeal of the waves. In a new strategy, Nelsen and a handful of other surf intellectuals are letting go of lofty environmentalist rhetoric and fighting economics with economics.
“Those of us who really love the ocean have an instinct when we see beautiful places like this to think that they’re priceless and to think that the commodification of nature, and putting price tags on everything, is the root cause of nature’s destruction.
. . .
I think that’s actually counterproductive,” Jason Scorse, director of the Center for the Blue Economy, said in a TEDx talk in April. Scorse is the author of the book “What Environmentalists Need to Know About Economics” (2010). “When nature is undervalued, we make bad decisions.”
Rincon was a rare victory for surfers. The international campaign to protect the wave break, led by the Surfrider Foundation, an advocacy group, blocked the condo proposal and persuaded lawmakers to designate Tres Palmas, the name of the break, as the heart of Puerto Rico’s first marine reserve.
And it helped launch the science of “surfonomics.”
Intrinsic value in a wave
In March, Nelsen, 42, completed a doctorate of environmental science at UCLA, where he studied the economics of surfing. Surfonomics is an offshoot of natural resource economics that seeks to quantify the worth of waves, both in terms of their value to surfers and businesses and their non-market value — or how much people would be willing to pay not to lose them.