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Save The Waves Coalition marks 20 years of protecting surf ecosystems

June 22 2023

The Save The Waves Coalition has established a global partnership network that is flourishing two decades after its launch with the help of surfing communities worldwide.

Save The Waves Coalition marks 20 years of protecting surf ecosystems

Earlier this month, more than 100 surfers and ocean conservation experts gathered for the inaugural Save the Waves Coalition (STW) Summit at Costanoa Resort in Santa Cruz, California.

The three-day summit, which appropriately sandwiched World Ocean Day on June 7, was a fitting way to mark the 20th anniversary of the launch of STW, an international non-profit organisation that works with a diverse range of partners dedicated to protecting surf ecosystems.

Back in 2003, Will Henry officially founded STW as a grassroots, surfer-based effort to protect many threatened surf spots on the island of Madeira.

Since then, STW has built coalitions to protect, steward, and defend surf ecosystems through a unique combination of protected area creation, stewardship, and grassroots mobilisation.

“Our vision is a world where surf ecosystems are valued, and surfing provides a proactive vehicle for long-term coastal conservation,” STW’s Conservation Programs Manager, Mara Arroyo, told Global Sustainable Sport.


Two decades on from the STW’s launch, the organisation has blossomed.

With CEO Nik Strong-Cvetich leading a nine-strong roster of staff who have expertise in a number of areas, including surf conservation, protected areas, community organising, data input, nonprofit communications and philanthropy, STW’s initiatives now span the globe.

Today, the non-profit works in Mexico, Chile, Costa Rica, Brazil, Portugal, Peru, The Azores, The Maldives, Indonesia, Australia, the United Kingdom and across the United States, with its headquarters in California.

This work is underpinned by a network of fruitful collaborations with like-minded partners.

“One of the greatest strengths of the organisation is the Coalition. Not just part of the name, but rather a key function of impact and operations, the Coalition includes our on-the-ground partners, regional organisations and other international NGOs. At the core of our values is collaboration. We work where we’re invited and never where we’re not. Our method of work means we can protect coastlines and surf breaks at a local level on an international scale.” Save The Waves Conservation Programs Manager Mara Arroyo
Image: Esteban Delgado, courtesy of Save The Waves Coalition

Image: Esteban Delgado, courtesy of Save The Waves Coalition


Much like the organisation’s partners in conservation, STW has a wide array of supporters.

Programs and operations are funded by foundations like the Flotilla Foundation, Packard Foundation, and Schmidt and Marine Technology, as well as brand partners such as Patagonia, O’Neill and Klean Kanteen, plus individual donors who believe in the mission.

This support has coincided with an increasing interest in protecting surf ecosystems worldwide over the past two decades, with STW citing two key factors for the growth of this global movement.

“First, waves, surf breaks, and coastal-marine ecosystems worldwide are under threat, either from global impacts of climate change, such as sea level rise, ocean acidification and ocean warming, or from the impacts of human activities, such as coastal development, sewage, marine debris, solid waste, oil spills, coastal erosion and restricted access,” Arroyo explains. “Second, surfing as a sport has experienced remarkable growth in popularity in the last two decades, transcending borders and bringing together a global surfing community.

“As a consequence of these global trends, STW, together with our local partners, promotes the idea that protecting surf breaks and their surrounding environment helps to preserve people’s wellbeing and connection to the ocean, support sustainable coastal economies and ecological resilience, and protect both biodiversity and coastal resilience in the face of climate change and sea level rise.”
Image: Luke Sorensen, courtesy of Save The Waves Coalition

Image: Luke Sorensen, courtesy of Save The Waves Coalition


STW’s programs, such as World Surfing Reserves (WSR) and Surf Protected Area Networks (SPAN), promote and formalise surf ecosystem protection in various locations as part of a global coastal and marine conservation effort.

WSR is the organisation’s flagship program that proactively identifies, designates and preserves outstanding waves, surf zones and their surrounding environments around the world. Since its inception in 2009, STW has designated 12 such reserves to protect 97 unique surf ecosystems across North, Central and South America, as well as Australia and Europe.

Meanwhile, through the SPAN program, a systematic approach has been adopted to conserving large numbers of surf ecosystems that can scale quickly. This approach follows a six-step process to identify, implement, and locally manage Surf Protected Areas around the world. There are SPAN projects in Mexico, Costa Rica, Chile, The Azores, and Indonesia, while STW supports partners with their initiatives in Uruguay and Brazil.

Such programs contribute towards one pillar of a three-pronged strategy that has been developed by STW to enable local surf breaks to be protected by the communities that cherish them the most.

“The WSR program recognises key ecological, cultural, and economic attributes of surf ecosystems around the world and builds coalitions to protect those attributes, and the SPAN program is a new approach for marine and coastal conservation that combines legal protection of surf ecosystems and sustainable community development,” Arroyo says.

“Under our second strategy, we engage and support communities with effective management of their coastal resources; through the Stewardship Platform and the Save The Waves App, we want to empower the global surfing community to monitor their surf ecosystems, identify threats, and also to participate in the process to address those threats.

“Our third strategy is to defend coastal ecosystems through grassroots mobilisation. Our campaigns inspire actions that result in conservation efforts and enable coastal communities to defend their natural resources and, at the same time, to socialise the change.”

Image: Nikki Brooks, courtesy of Save The Waves Coalition

Image: Nikki Brooks, courtesy of Save The Waves Coalition

App empowerment

The Save The Waves App is described by Arroyo as “an empowerment tool that allows individuals around the world to protect surf ecosystems by reporting the threats that they encounter”.

Essentially, the App connects reports made by individuals with organisations working to solve these issues at the community, regional or global scales, depending on the issue at hand. It is also a key tool for WSR and SPAN managers, allowing them to monitor the health of their surf ecosystems and engage their communities.

Having smashed past the 8,000-download benchmark in its iOS and Android versions, the app has supported more than 650 reports from over 40 countries around the world.

“This tool has allowed Save The Waves to harness the global network of surfers as citizen scientists to actively help protect the surf ecosystems that they frequent, as well as provide an avenue for individuals to contribute to the protection of their surf ecosystems,” Arroyo adds.

Building a worldwide community has been at the heart of STW’s approach. The non-profit’s own research has found that about 85% of the world’s top surf sites are located in global biodiversity hotspots, illustrating the scale of the opportunity, as well as the task at hand.

“Over the last two decades, there has been an increased interest worldwide in protecting surf ecosystems,” Arroyo says. “Save The Waves is supporting and collaborating with communities around the world to increase the protection and effective management of our oceans, focusing on places where iconic surfing waves overlap with biodiversity hotspots and habitats critically important for marine conservation. Save The Waves is constantly communicating and growing public support. Every day the demand for SPANs grows within the surfing and NGO community.”

Future focus

STW’s areas of focus – now and for the foreseeable future – are multi-faceted.

Alongside its partners, STW has helped to establish surf protected areas in Mexico, Chile, the Azores and Costa Rica.

Meanwhile, the organisation has also explored innovative responses to climate change, including the launch of the app and the creation of the world’s first insurance policy for surf ecosystems.

“From pre-emptive protection to defence against rising threats, we know first-hand that the coastline needs passionate wave savers to take action and protect the places they love,” Arroyo says. “We’ve spent the last two decades preserving surf ecosystems worldwide, but our work is not done yet. Wave by wave, mile by mile, we are fulfilling our promise to protect 1,000 waves by 2030.”

Such lofty aspirations inevitably come with significant challenges; and surfing has particularly active and vociferous athletes on issues such as climate change. Indeed, several athletes – such as seven-time British women’s champion Lucy Campbell – have suggested that the sport isn’t doing enough on broader sustainability issues, such as relying on boards and wetsuits mass-produced from petrochemicals.

“Most surfing communities are passionate about the ocean and motivated to protect it. Our goal is to give coastal communities the tools they need to effectively value, protect and manage their natural resources,” Arroyo says. “The expansion of surfing as an industry and sport has increased awareness about these threats and has brought growing acknowledgment of the environmental, cultural and economic value of surfing. Owing to these global trends, local organisations and programs focused on surf ecosystem protection have emerged. Through our work, we have seen how, in particular, the World Surfing Reserve program has inspired many communities to protect surf ecosystems, and there is a great desire to legally protect their waves.”

Challenges and opportunities

On the back of rising awareness of the issue globally in recent years, the task navigating the speed of climate change is viewed by many in the global environmental protection movement as a primary challenge – and STW is no different in its outlook.

“Climate change is a complex issue with multiple causes and impacts, and understanding and addressing its complexity requires scientific expertise, data, and collaboration across diverse disciplines,” says Arroyo, outlining the future challenges STW is ready to face.

“Climate change can also be a highly politicised issue, and non-profits may encounter many challenges while advocating for effective policies, regulations, and agreements that address the root causes of climate change, such as finding substantial resources. Raising public awareness about climate change and mobilising communities can also be challenging. Overcoming public scepticism or indifference requires effective communication, education, and outreach efforts.

“In addition to mitigation efforts, non-profits must also focus on adaptation and resilience; addressing these challenges requires collaboration, innovation and multidisciplinary approaches. Non-profits must build partnerships with governments, businesses, communities, and other stakeholders to drive effective climate action and promote sustainable practices for a more resilient future.”

However, after two decades of experience that have yielded powerful bonds and game-changing initiatives, STW is braced to tackle future hurdles head-on and build on its work.

“There are many places around the world where surf breaks are part of an important coastal and marine habitat,” Arroyo says.

“We have a map that shows 50 globally important surfing areas that overlap with biodiversity hotspots, and our SPAN program focuses on these places. Some of these surf breaks are located inside or close to protected areas, but many are not.

“So, this means two things: surfing and waves should be included in management plans of existing protected areas, and there is also an opportunity for us to create protected areas around surf locations and contribute to coastal and marine conservation.”

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