New England Surfers Care about Water Quality, According to Preliminary Survey Data

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New England Sustainability Consortium Media Release
Contact: Evelyn Jones, NH EPSCoR, evelyn.jones@unh.edu

Shannon Rogers, assistant professor of Environmental Science & Policy at PSU’s Center for the Environment (right), and Sophie Scott PSU graduate student (left) at North Hampton State Beach, NH. Photo by Evelyn Jones, NH EPSCoR.

Shannon Rogers, assistant professor of Environmental Science & Policy at PSU’s Center for the Environment (right), and Sophie Scott PSU graduate student (left) at North Hampton State Beach, NH. Photo by Evelyn Jones, NH EPSCoR.

Up and down the Maine and New Hampshire coastline researchers from Plymouth State University have been on a summer “surfari”, scouring beaches and vigilantly watching for primo weather forecasts. They want waves (not just ankle biters). Because they know when the surfs up, that’s where they’ll find surfers. Once sighted, they approach their targets with clipboards and surf wax. They’ve interviewed almost 245 surfers this year from Scarborough, ME to Seabrook, NH.

Shannon Rogers is not an average beachgoer, looking for a relaxing day on the shore. She’s an assistant professor of Environmental Science & Policy at Plymouth State University’s Center for the Environment. She and her PSU graduate student Sophie Scott want to know how issues around water quality are perceived locally in NH and ME. They are part of a larger collaborative research project involving several New England universities and dozens of scientists in examining sources of coastal water pollution and strategies for managing beach advisories and closures.

“The idea to study surfers came up because they are the most exposed to the water and are generally perceived as having a ‘laissez faire’ attitude about the associated risks. They are more likely to be active during storms and after it rains, when water quality is lowest. And they use the ocean year round”, says Rogers. “We are studying their perception of risk related to water quality and trying to understand how much local ecological knowledge the surfing community possesses. Given the nature of the sport, they are also more apt to ingest water or get cuts or scrapes.”

Rogers and Scott decided the best way to tap into this knowledge was to chase the Big Kahuna by hitting the beaches. In the spring, they started talking with Surfrider Foundation and various gatekeepers in the Gulf of Maine beach and surfing community (i.e. surf shop owners, seasoned surfers, state resource agencies) along the coast as part of long scoping interviews. They gathered information about where to surf, why people choose to go surfing at various locations, and how they get their knowledge of different areas. From there, they developed a very brief survey that could be administered on the beaches in 2-3 minutes.

Scott began administering the short beach survey as part of her PSU graduate thesis in late spring. “I’m a Mainer and my background is in sustainable agriculture with an interest in food systems. I was raised in a family of fisherman. My father was an “egga” (sea urchin diver) and he’s an old school Maine surfer,” said Scott. “Examining beaches was different twist for me, but I’m interested in water quality and know that the surfing community is in the water more than anybody else. Based on the survey responses so far, surfers have provided a lot of local ecological knowledge.”

The survey starts out broad related to location and water conditions. Soon it drills down asking if they think surfing is a risky sport—how risky? Then it starts to get even more specific asking—have they surfed during storms? Have they surfed during a posted beach water quality advisory? Does water pollution impact their decision to surf? Would they like information about water quality advisories at their surf spots? Scott also notes the surf conditions on that day and gives participants surf wax. “The free wax was a big hit and received very enthusiastically,” Scott says with a laugh.

In NH, Rogers and Scott are mainly surveying at Jenness beach and at The Wall in Hampton. In Maine, they’ve been predominately at York, Wells, Higgins, and Ogunquit beaches. However, the waves are the gnarliest in the fall and winter—in the summer many surfers are deterred from all the people—so the dynamic research duo plans to continue surveying for another couple of months.

Results from preliminary data show while it’s not one of their top risks, surfers do think about water quality. If there was a posted advisory, 40% of respondents indicated that this information would impact their decision to surf. This goes in the face of a pervasive idea that surfers will surf no matter what if there are waves. Common themes show surfers to be stewards of the environment and holders of ecologic knowledge. “They are aware of biophysical process that lead to poor water quality,” Rogers notes.

While not a majority of respondents, Scott and Rogers were surprised to hear that a hearty minority discussed getting sick after surfing. “People say they are getting sick. Especially in a couple of places in Maine. During one interaction, a guy said he had a really great summer one year and the surf was good—so he went almost every single day—and he was sick all summer. Another woman said, she just plans on getting sick,” recalls Scott. “These folks are not trained in it, but they have so much local knowledge because they are out in the water every single day, even when it’s bad. They are very aware of all of the factors that influence water quality; rain, high population, ocean currents.”

Rogers follows-up by clarifying, “We are not doing an epidemiological study here but they are doing them in other places and even looking at the possibility that surfers might be more resistant to things like super bugs. We hope that findings from our work will inform future efforts around these issues. I really think the big take away for me so far has been that despite prevailing ideas that surfers will surf no matter what, we do see a sizable group saying that they consider water quality in their decision process and a majority want access to more information about the water quality at their local surf spots.

Looking ahead, they hope to recruit participants for more in-depth interviews. They want to learn more about how enhanced knowledge within this group could raise awareness of potential risks and increase the ability of individuals to make more informed decisions about when to enter the water and where the safest locations are. They are also collaborating with other researchers to find and establish better ways to network and communicate water quality information to coastal stakeholder groups.

This research is part of the New England Sustainability Consortium (NEST), funded by the National Science Foundation’s EPSCoR programs in NH and ME. NEST is designed to respond to societal challenges where economic and community development goals need to be balanced with environmental protection. Such sustainability objectives are not only of central importance in New England, they also represent national and global imperatives.

This article, New England Surfers Care about Water Quality, According to Preliminary Survey Data, first appeared on Center for the Environment.