Ocean Currents

Surfonomics: How Much Money Is a Wave Worth?


The title and author are long forgotten, but I remember the story I used to read to my children. Mom and Dad didn’t have a lot of money, but they lived in a beautiful place and spent as much time as possible outdoors. When their children complained, the parents pointed out that while the family didn’t have a new car or the latest gadgets, they were able to watch the sunset almost every evening. They could stroll along the river at leisure. “How much is a morning on the beach worth?” Mom would ask. “What’s the value of watching the blackberries blossom and ripen?” Dad would say, gathering said berries for the family’s pancake breakfast.

The questions were rhetorical, the point being that nature’s “value” transcends that of mere money. A wonderful point – and one I could relate to while raising a family on a combination of student loans and part-time jobs as I worked on my degree – but when fighting political battles, awe and intrinsic value take a back seat to modern day economics.

Enter Chad Nelsen, environmental director for the Surfrider Foundation. Nelsen recently earned a doctorate of environmental science from UCLA and his work on surf economics was written about in the Washington Post last month.

From the Gregory Thomas article:

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.”

It’s true that when I’m paddling out past the starfish-studded rocks, admiring the cormorants and sea lions, and envying the pelicans their grace, I’m not calculating how much this particular surf session cost me. I love the ocean and therefore desire to protect it. But when my particular beach is under attack by pollution, inappropriate development or other threats, my best defense lies in exactly calculating how much I and others spend recreating there. This is true all over.

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.

“The assumption is often that surfing is worth zero dollars,” said Nelsen, environmental director for the Surf­rider Foundation. “It’s taken for granted. It’s not perceived as being a viable and important source of economics, particularly with decision makers in coastal zone management that we’re talking to all the time.”

To prove there is intrinsic value in a wave, Nelsen started at the beginning. A report he produced last August tabulates the number of surfers in the country and how much money they shell out for the privilege of riding the waves. After surveying more than 5,000 surfers, Nelsen concluded that about 3.3 million people in the country surf 108 times a year, drive an average of 10 miles per session and contribute at least $2 billion to the U.S. economy annually.

“The report is to demonstrate that, hey, there’s a lot of surfers in the U.S. They go to the beach a lot, and they spend a lot of money in these communities,” Nelsen said. “Therefore, you should take their interests seriously.”

A day at the beach might feel like the opposite of serious – and should! – but when we’re fighting to protect the beach, the ocean, the waves and the wildlife, we need to remember, money talks. And thanks to Nelsen, Scorsce and others, we’re now better prepared to have that conversation.

Further resources:

A short film on Tres Palmas marine reserve

The economic assessment by Linwood Pendleton, the Duke economist who assisted Nelsen and is a chief economist for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

Socioeconomic and Recreational profile of U.S. Surfers

Nelsen’s dissertation on surf economics

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