Dr Abalone giving a talk at the Surfing Doctors Conference. Anglet, France. Oct. 2, 2015. Photo: Susan Tissot.

I recently attended a conference sponsored by the European Association of Surfing Doctors; a group of surfers that are also medical doctors and health practitioners. Held near Biarritz in the beautiful Basque region of southern France I was tasked with telling the group why they should care about a healthy ocean and what they can do about it. As a marine biologist and surfer this was a challenging assignment: how can I boil down the entire field of marine conservation into a 30 min talk? Well I did and this is what I presented. I made four major points:

  1. We should care about a healthy ocean: we are all related and healthy oceans support healthy surfers.
  2. Healthy oceans are resilient and need clean water, natural habitats and intact ecosystems.
  3. Climate change is the biggest challenge facing our oceans today.
  4. Surfers are natural ambassadors for the ocean and need to learn, educate and advocate to protect the sea.

We Are All Related

Everyone and everything on the planet is connected and we are all related. It may not seem like it when you are sliding down the face of a wave but the ocean is much, much more than a source of swells.  The ocean, and the water in it, distributes heat around the globe and thus regulates the weather and the longer-term climate. Without the sea we would boil at the equator and freeze in the poles. The ocean also produces 60% of the world’s oxygen and absorbs most of the planet’s carbon dioxide, thus further controlling our climate. The truth is the top ten feet of the ocean holds as much heat as our entire atmosphere.


More than 3.5 billion people depend on the ocean for their primary source of food and many of our bio products (pharmaceuticals, cosmetics, etc) are derived from the ocean.  Of course the very reef (or sand bar) you surf on protects shorelines from erosion and tsunamis by absorbing wave energy. These are just a few of the many things that physically connect us to the sea. As humans we are just one of the many species on the planet that live and play in the ocean; the similarities among us and other marine creatures are much greater then our petty differences. To illustrate this point  I created a short video: we are all creatures of the sea and for us to be healthy we need a healthy ocean.

Healthy Oceans Are Resilient

The key to a healthy ocean is simple: we just need to leave it alone! A lot of my work on fishery management is about regulating humans interactions with the sea. To do this we need to understand ocean ecology, our effects on ecosystems and target species, and how we interact with the sea. But at the end of the day a healthy ocean just needs its natural ability to be resilient. Accomplishing that is fairly straightforward but challenging: keep the water clean, maintain natural habitats, and maintain intact ecosystems. When we do those things marine ecosystem utilize their ability to absorb disturbance — natural perturbations due to storms, or human-induced impacts such as overfishing — by resisting change and recovering quickly after change occurs.


In a classic study Kevin Lafferty and Michael Behrens (2005) studied resilience in kelp forests in the California Channel Islands over a twenty- year period inside and outside of areas protected from fishing. In the fished areas divers harvested spiny lobsters which led to increases in sea urchins populations and lower kelp abundance as urchins consumed the kelp. As a result, the kelp forest community fluctuated significantly over time and mostly existed as a low-diversity sea urchin barren: kelp was uncommon in the urchin-infested area and without kelp there were few fishes or invertebrates in the system.  In contrast, in a nearby area protected from fishing lobsters were common, urchins uncommon, and the rich kelp bed supported a high diversity of fishes and invertebrates over the same time period. Thus, an intact ecosystem showed greater resistance to change and supported a much richer community then the one subjected to fishing.

Two other factors key to healthy ecosystems are clean water and natural habitats. Polluted water is one of the first things that directly effects surfers and discharges of various pollutants, such as sewage, sediments, toxic chemicals, and plastics can poison and kill marine life and surfers alike. Plastic waste, for example, kills up to 1 million sea birds, 100,000 sea mammals and countless fish each year and can remain in our ecosystem for years. Fortunately there are many organizations working on these issues such as Surfrider, Plastic Soup Foundation, and in California, Heal the Bay.

Heal the Bay, Results from Annual Report Card, 2014-15 for California.

In a 2014-2015 report, for example, Heal the Bay graded over 400 locations for water quality. During the dry summer 91% of the locations sampled received an “A” for their excellent water quality. Unfortunately during heavy runoff in the winter that dropped to 53% of the sites, with 24% of the sites receiving an “F” for very poor water quality. When water quality is poor surfers have a significantly higher risk of developing ear and eye infections, or exacerbate existing wounds or illnesses. Last year a surfer off San Diego died after surfing in polluted water from an staph infection he developed related to a recent surgery. We should never have to risk our lives to swim in the ocean nor should marine life be subjected to these conditions.

Similarly intact habitats are key for healthy ecosystems. These include coral and rocky reefs free from boat or anchor damage, bleaching, or dredging. Many of our most important and complex ecosystems, such as coral reefs, kelp forests, deep rocky reefs, and deep sea habitats are integrated with the sea floor which is used as a source of shelter, food, and mating areas. When habitats are damaged an essential component of these systems is removed, lowering resilience. My research off the Oregon coast (Hixon and Tissot, 2007) documented that bottom trawls reduce the abundance of corals by 99 percent and decreased the overall abundance of bottom-dwelling invertebrates by more than half. In even deeper areas of seafloor, we know that a single trawl can damage sensitive corals and sponges that may have grown over centuries or even millennia.

Climate Change is Our Biggest Challenge

I have discussed this topic at length in a previous post (Deep Impact: Five Reasons Why Surfers Should Care About Global Warming) so will only summarize my comments here. As a marine biologist I am often asked what is the greatest threat to the oceans. It’s a easy answer: global warming. As a surfer I am surprised how few surfers seem to know, or care, about our assault on the oceans. In reality, this is the challenge of our generation and we need to do something about it! Here are my major points as to why:

  1. The surf will change: the waves won’t necessarily get better and your local surf spot may disappear
  2. The ocean will experience profound change, for a long time: think on the scale of thousands to 10s of thousands of years.
  3. Coral reefs will be destroyed: these ecosystem are already feeling the effects of climate change. This year (2015-16) will be brutal.
  4. Compassion for others: global warming is having large impacts across the global that affect everyone, not just surfers.
  5. We owe it to the ocean: the ocean asks nothing in return but gives everything. Isn’t it time we returned the favor?

Learn, Educate and Advocate for Healthy Seas

We are natural ambassadors for the ocean and people listen to us. We should be the first in line to protect the sea and our surf. We are all children of the ocean: born of the sea, live by the sea, will return to the sea. Our molecules, and our very souls, have been part of this planet and the ocean for billions of years. So it is time for us to give back and help conserve the oceans for ourselves and for future generations.

It doesn’t matter what or how much you do but do something. Even little things help and collectively we can make a huge difference. There are anywhere from 5-20 million surfers on the planet and we can be very effective in our local communities. Think about which of these issues connects with you and do something about it. If you don’t know much learn about the issue, then teach others, then advocate for solutions. Donate your time or money to a non-profit; educate other about the importance of clean water and the role of plastics in the death of marine life; write letters to local governments and support local initiatives. Any and all of these things can help and the next time you are out in the lineup you will feel great that you were able to contribute to keeping the ocean healthy.  After all, a health ocean supports healthy surfers. We are all related.


  • List of non-profits focused on marine conservation; another list; yet one more.
  • Heal the Bay’s Annual 2014-2015 Beach Report Card. pp. 52 pp.
  • Hixon, M. A. and B. N. Tissot. 2007. Comparison of trawled vs. untrawled mud seafloor assemblages of fishes and macroinvertebrates at Coquille Bank, Oregon. J. Exp. Mar. Biol. Ecol. 344: 23-34.
  • Lafferty, K. D. & M. D. Behrens. 2005. Temporal variation in the state of rocky reefs: does fishing increase the vulnerability of kelp forests to disturbance? In: Garcelon DK, Schwemm CA (eds) Sixth California Islands Symposium. Institute for Wildlife Studies, Ventura, CA, p 511-520.

8 responses to “Ocean Conservation for Surfers: Why Care about Healthy Oceans?”

  1. […] Chemistry and biology: Surfrider and other groups, such as Heal the Bay in California, have been instrumental in addressing water quality issues in coastal waters throughout the world including chemical pollution, sewage discharges and biological contamination, and ocean dumping including trash and plastics. However, because these efforts are focused on protecting surfers, marine life also benefits but many challenges remain (see Ocean Conservation for Surfers). […]

  2. […] Chemistry and biology: Surfrider and other groups, such as Heal the Bay in California, have been instrumental in addressing water quality issues in coastal waters throughout the world including chemical pollution, sewage discharges and biological contamination, and ocean dumping including trash and plastics. However, because these efforts are probation focused on protecting surfers, marine life also benefits but many challenges remain (see Ocean Conservation for Surfers). […]

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