Save The Waves has since produced two studies evaluating the economic value of surf breaks, in partnership with academics at Stanford University, the University of Oregon and the University of Hawaii. Mavericks, an epicenter of big-wave surfing in Half Moon Bay, Calif., is worth $23.9 million annually in a report produced in 2010. A wave at Mundaka, off the coast of southern Spain, brings in about $4.5 million to the local economy each year, according to a 2007 study.
Economists calculate the value of a surfable wave by tabulating visiting expenses of surfers and surf spectators. Some of the indicators they watch: distance traveled, visits per year, time taken off work, length of stay, drive time, gas money, parking fees, food breaks, gear rentals. The theory is that such figures represent how much money a person is willing to part with for the experience. At Mavericks, for example, economists calculated that more than 420,000 people, not just surfers, visit each year to watch the waves and spend an average of $56.70 per visit.
A study looks at the economics of surfing.
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‘Waves are our Yosemite Valleys’
The practice of protecting natural resources for public use is as old as Yellowstone, the country’s first national park. It was established in 1872 “for the benefit and enjoyment of the people,” according to the statute signed by President Ulysses S. Grant. The field of natural resource economics is a natural outgrowth of the same idea. It began as a means of quantifying value in mining, fishing and timber industries, and it provides a method of assessing dollar values for travel and activities around places where people recreate. The methodology gives economists tools to gauge how much people are willing to pay to go skiing or whale-watching or to hike the Appalachian Trail.
“These waves are our Yosemite Valleys,” Nelsen said. He believes they deserve the same considerations and protections. “We think of these as national treasures.”
The same way national parks set use restrictions on select areas, surfers are beginning to induct unique wave breaks into what they call World Surfing Reserves. The designation was created in 2009 by Save The Waves and modeled on an Australian organization called National Surfing Reserves that has had success coordinating protection plans with government officials for about a dozen surf breaks. What is often lacking is the financial element — key to swaying decision makers, said Neil Lazarow, an economist who evaluated surfing on Australia’s famed Gold Coast.
The movement to apply economics to environmentalism got a boost last year from the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology. In a report issued to the White House, the council recommends investing in research surrounding “environmental capital,” or non-consumptive natural resources that people will pay to enjoy. The idea that self-sustaining resources such as waves don’t attract dollars simply because you can’t count people moving through a turnstile is outdated thinking, said Pendleton, the Duke economist.
“We’ve tended to focus on big industrial uses of the outdoors while forgetting about these much more sustainable uses of the outdoors, especially recreation,” Pendleton said. “And we do it at our own economic peril.”