More than 200,000 Kiwis and 30,000 tourists surf in New Zealand. Yet despite being part of a massive cultural influence, when it comes to decision making, the interests of these people are commonly ignored. It has always been this way. Their premier surf spot, and one of the best surf breaks in the world, Manu Bay in Raglan, exists with a boat jetty as the conclusion of the ride.
In the last few weeks, this secondary status has been reinforced with two further decisions. These relate to the decision to renew the dredging consent of 10,000 cubic metres per year from the channel that impacts upon the bar at Whangamata and the decision to allow the dumping of some 400,000 cubic metres of dredging per year, in front of a series of nationally important surf breaks in Southland, namely 50,000 in front of Aramoana/ "the Spit", and 350,000 in the path of Whareakeake and Karitane.
These three places are on the list of 17 recognised surf spots of national significance, as inscribed under the 2010 New Zealand Coastal Policy Statement. These surf breaks are listed because through processes of nature, both rare and fragile combinations have created conditions that 99 per cent of other coastal areas do not share. These 17 places are the ocean sparkle in the image of 100 per cent Pure. Policy 16 of the statement obliges decision makers to ensure that activities in the coastal environment do not adversely affect the listed sites.
Despite the fine exhortations in that document, the recent decisions on the protection of surf breaks have failed in legal and economic terms. The economic risk is that surfers stop visiting. This is a particular concern because surfers are a deep-pocket community. The average age of today's surfer is in their early 30s, and they command salaries above the national average. Per trip, between costs on fuel, food and surfing-related equipment, they will be parting with up to $50 a visit. This figure increases when they are tempted to buy the beach properties that go with this lifestyle.
It is because of such economic importance that surfing communities in other countries have attempted to put a financial value on the surf breaks, rather than just adopt rhetoric that it was "priceless". South Stradbroke Island in Australia is worth an estimated US$20.7 million ($30 million) per year, via the 11,500 surfers who visit the island 64,000 times each year. These surfers spend more than twice the amount of revenue from a proposed cruise ship terminal, which would have threatened the surf break. Mundaka in Spain is worth an estimated US$4.5 million per year. This town took a major hit when the annual professional surf competition was cancelled because of the impacts of river dredging.
The competition followed the actions of individual surfers, who were spending time - and money - elsewhere once the attraction of Mundaka dulled.
The economic impacts of dulling our best surf spots in the North Island and South Island need to be modelled, as this is one of the few areas where conservation pays for itself. The second mistake the recent decisions have made is failing to understand what a precautionary approach, as required in the Coastal Statement, means. In certain situations, such as this, the precaution approach is meant to reverse the burden of proof. What this means is that proposals for development in these key areas should prove they are safe before proceeding. If there is conflicting scientific evidence of good quality, more studies should be undertaken to resolve the disputes.
In both recent instances, there was strong scientific disagreement about what the impacts of development will do to the surf breaks. These disagreements should be resolved - before giving the green light to proceed. Decision makers should only go ahead when they are confident they are making fully informed decisions. In addition, all reasonable efforts at finding alternative solutions, such as different dump sites or different methods and timing of dredging, should be undertaken. This focus on precaution and alternatives has not been followed when protecting our premier surf spots.
If we were dealing with the 99 per cent of other surf breaks on the coast, this would not be such a big deal. But we are not. We are dealing with the jewels in the crown. The question is whether the same approaches of decision makers would have been made with our best ski fields, white water rapids or premier bush walks in national parks ? I doubt it.
Al Gillespie is Pro Vice-Chancellor Research and Professor of Law at the University of Waikato.