What’s an Ocean Wave Worth? Hint: Millions

Surfers are campaigning to preserve a world-class Mexican surf break by calculating its economic value.

(Photo: Ryan Craig)

Dec 3, 2014· 2 MIN READ
Editor, reporter, and radio producer Zachary Slobig has covered coastal issues for Outside, NPR, Los Angeles Times, and many others.

There’s a lush arroyo in northern Baja California, Mexico, where a river meets the ocean to create a world-class wave that is prized by surfers but also threatened by development.

Now surfers and conservationists in Mexico and the United States have launched a campaign to preserve San Miguel Arroyo—the birthplace of Mexican surfing—as the first state park in Baja California Norte.

How? They’re appealing to politicians’ wallets rather than their hearts by placing a price tag on the wave.

It’s called “surfonomics.” It’s part of a growing movement to preserve surf spots by calculating the economic value of waves. Researchers do that by tallying up the cash a break generates for a community when surfers and their families spend money on accommodations, surf schools, food, gear, and, of course, beer.

“Creation of the park would ensure access to the beach,” said Fernando Marvan, a marine scientist and a longtime local surfer. “This is a first step in a practice that could be repeated. Between Rosarito and Tijuana, there’s no public access at all. It’s fences and walls everywhere.”

The wave at San Miguel has lured surfers from Southern California since the 1940s, and a vibrant surf scene produced hometown hero and national champion Ignacio Felix Cota.

The San Miguel Arroyo also attracts industrial sand mining and is often used as a dumping ground for garbage. Many liken this perfect cobblestone point break to Trestles in Orange County, California, which has long been a flash point for developers and conservation-minded surfers.

“From an ecological standpoint, it’s one of the last fully intact watersheds around and supports lots of native and endemic plants and animals,” Nik Strong-Cvetich, executive director of the nonprofit Save the Waves, said of San Miguel.

Strong-Cvetich and his Northern California–based group have teamed up with ProNatura, Mexico’s largest conservation organization, to rally the global surf community that knows the value of the wave. Their Change.org petition collected thousands of signatures from the U.S., the United Kingdom, Australia, and Canada in its first week.

Surfonomics aims to pin dollar signs to the emotional attachment of a particular wave. For instance, Mavericks, the big-wave destination near Half Moon Bay, California, is worth $24 million annually, according to a 2010 Save the Waves report produced in partnership with Stanford University, the University of Oregon, and the University of Hawaii.

Save the Waves is now collecting data that the group hopes will show local decision makers the economic value of keeping San Miguel intact.

“We’ve seen some rough numbers,” said Strong-Cvetich. “People spend significantly on tolls, gas, food, and places to stay, and people locally will spend money on surf schools. In a similar study we did in Pichilemu, Chile, we found traveling surfers spend around $160 every day, and that’s conservative.”

Gustavo Danemann, executive director of ProNatura Northwest, said that locals have clamored for protection of San Miguel for more than a decade.

“This is a critical site for the retention of freshwater that feeds 500 wells in the area,” he said. “Ensenada has a deficit of green space. If it is not protected, this arroyo will follow the same path as all the other streams up and down the coast—it will be overused, degraded, sand mined, and surrounded by buildings.”