Vol. 1, No. 1 2009 Page 85
The Customs and Culture of Surfing,
and an Opportunity for a New Territorialism?
M. De Alessi
The sport of surfing has grown by leaps and bounds since it first took off around the world in
the 1950s. Today, there are over 10 million surfers worldwide (BUCKLEY 2002a), which
means that especially in popular surfing locales such as California, Hawaii, and Australia,
uncrowded waves are a rarity. Surfing is an individual sport, best enjoyed with one rider on
one wave, not a crowd. Like most problems, crowding generates behavioral responses, and
two in particular have had some degree of success.
The first response attempts to accommodate the crowds through a surfer’s code of conduct,
which sets informal rules and self-enforced regulations to avoid conflict on the water. The
second, known as localism, is an attempt to reduce the crowd by using violence and conflict
on the water to stake out exclusive territories. In each case, the threat of violence or at least
social sanction is used to discourage miscreants or interlopers. The surfer’s code is generally a
source of pride among surfers, while localism is primarily viewed as a stain on the surf
One of the reasons why surfers tend to be so protective of good surfing spots is that they are
limited in supply. The emerging science of creating artificial surfing breaks, however, may
begin to address that, and this paper will weigh the opportunities presented by this new
technology for changing institutional structures.
ACCESS TO THE WAVES
The notion of the Freedom of the Seas was popularized by the Dutchman Hugo Grotius in the
Century, and has held sway ever since. In his famous treatise, Mare Liberum, Grotius
proclaimed that the oceans and their resources were inexhaustible and demanded freedom of
access for everyone. What is generally forgotten is that Grotius had an ulterior motive; as a
Dutchman has was concerned by the British navy’s efforts to control the high seas and
therefore Dutch trading (CHRISTY and SCOTT, 1965).
Grotius’ ideas still hold sway over shipping today, as well as over everything from fishing to
surfing. The Surfrider Foundation, a prominent environmental group focused on the surfing
environment, has as part of its core mission to promote “free and open access to the world’s
waves and beaches” (SURFRIDER, nd). Most national and state laws around the world take
a similar view. In California, for example, private property in land may not extend beyond
the average high tide mark. And even in those areas that may be leased for specific activities
such as oyster cultivation, the right of passage overhead remains.
A well-shaped wave approaching the beach is a valuable resource, albeit a fleeting one. And
open-access to valuable resources, especially in populous places like California, inevitably
leads to what GARRETT HARDIN (1968) famously termed “the tragedy of the commons”.
Hardin’s essay was also famously off base about the exact nature of the “commons”, and a
host of scholars have since pointed out the wide variety and frequent effectiveness of both
Vol. 1, No. 1 2009
formal and informal communal property systems that Hardin lumps into his “commons”
(BERKES et al., 1990). Still, the tragedy of the commons remains relevant today because writ
large (that is, more narrowly defining the common as open access) , HARDIN (1968) was
right that “Ruin is the destination toward which all men rush, each pursuing his own best
interest in a society that believes in the freedom of the commons.”
PARALLELS TO THE FISHERIES
Free and open access to the marine environment has caused its share of mischief around the
world, most notably in the world’s fisheries. In the United States, The National Marine
Fisheries Service reports that almost one-quarter of U.S. fish stocks are overfished, and
almost 40% are fished at their maximum level of exploitation (NMFS, 1999). Fisheries
depletion is widespread throughout the rest of the world as well. Much of the problem stems
from a longstanding set of fishing rules and regulations that ignore, or in many cases
undermine, the territories and norms created by local fishermen to address the problems of
Much of the sea may look like an open-access commons, but much of it is not:
‘It is one thing to contemplate the inshore sea from land’s end as a stranger, to
observe an apparently empty, featureless, open accessed expanse of water. The
image in a fisherman’s mind is something very different. Seascapes are
blanketed with history and imbued with names, myths, and legends, and
elaborate territories that sometimes become exclusive provinces partitioned
with traditional rights and owners much like property on land.’ JOHN
CORDELL (1989, p. 1)
Handed down from Grotius, the idea of free access to marine resources is largely a Western
notion. Throughout the South Pacific, for example, tightly controlled access to marine
resources such as coral reefs and other fishing grounds was common before European contact.
As ROBERT JOHANNES (1978) noted, “The most widespread single marine conservation
measure employed in Oceania, and the most important, was reef and lagoon tenure”, which
was typically “controlled by a clan, chief, or family”. In the past, punishments for interlopers
could be as severe as death. Johannes believes that there was not an island in Oceania where
marine resources were conserved more effectively today than they were before Europeans
Some of these marine tenure arrangements are now legally recognized, but more often than
not they are informal. Informal codes of conduct may be very effective, and they are also
common in Western society as well. One of the most famous examples is the Maine lobster
fishery, where lobstermen have formed ‘harbor gangs’ to mark territories and turn away
outsiders, often by violent means (ACHESON, 1987). These gangs effectively address the
overcrowding and overfishing problem, and as a result, areas controlled by the gangs produce
higher catches, larger lobsters, and larger incomes than areas outside their control
Efforts to territorialize fishing are gaining momentum worldwide, particularly with the
creation of Individual Fishing Quotas (IFQs) in places like New Zealand and Iceland. When
governments create IFQs to manage a fishery, they assign a percentage of a scientifically-
determined total allowable annual catch to individual fishermen, who are then free to fish or
trade that right. IFQs are most fully developed in New Zealand, where the system seems to
have successfully created an interest in the long-term health of fisheries among quota owners
(BATSTONE and SHARP, 1999). Owners of fishing quotas in New Zealand have also
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formed management companies, which facilitate cooperation among fishermen and reduce
competition on the water.
Of course, there is a major different between fish and waves. Fish populations are extractable
and therefore subject to depletion. Surfable waves, on the other hand, may suffer from
overcrowding, but they are an inexhaustible, un-extractible resource. This may explain the
reticence toward limiting access to surfing areas, because while crowds may reduce the
individual surfer’s experience, there is no real negative environmental impact. With the rise in
frustration and even occasional violence due to overcrowded waves, however, perhaps
territoriality should be reevaluated.
WHEN TERRITORIALISM WORKS
Surfing was invented in Hawaii, and was popular long before European contact. Today, the
easy going Hawaiian spirit is revered as an ideal of surf culture. But a closer look at history
reveals that the old Hawaiians most certainly did not believe in open access to the waves.
“Surfing in pre-European Hawaii was an important part of everyday life and
culture, with strong class overtones. Longer, better-riding boards and the best
surfing breaks were reserved for members of the ruling class, the alii. These
longboards, called olos, could reach 16 feet and weigh as much as 150 pounds.
Commoners used shorter boards, called akaias, which were about 8 feet long.
Children surfed little planks called paipos, similar to today’s bodyboards. A
commoner found using an olo or surfing a royal break could be put to death.”
Robert Johannes’ 1978 article on traditional marine conservation throughout Oceania painted
a bleak picture for the future, but by 2002, his outlook had changed, as communal tenure
systems began being formally recognized in places like Fiji (JOHANNES, 2002). Fiji is an
especially interesting case because a Fijian surf resort called Tavarua has grown out of this
marine tenure system. That is, because a particular world-class surfing area is part of a reef
area owned by a community, that community has been able to offer an uncrowded surfing
experience, for a price.
Even in California, where the public trust doctrine holds sway, there are legal restrictions on
coastal access in places like The Ranch, a surf spot in Santa Barbara County famous for its
breaks and the fierce territoriality of its owners. More widely known as the Hollister Ranch,
the area was, and still is, largely a working cattle ranch dating back to a Spanish land grant
covering 14,000 acres and eight and half miles of private beach. In the 1950s and 60s, the
owners granted some access rights for recreational use to a regional hunting club, which later
subdivided into a number of clubs including the Santa Barbara Surf Club, which subsequently
controlled access to the waves through the 1960s (HELLER, 2000).
When the ranch was subdivided in the 1970s, a number of affluent surfers saw their chance to
buy an uncrowded surf experience in Southern California. As one surfing website describes it,
“The Ranch would be one of the most crowded spots in California if it weren’t for the
$75,000 parking pass” (SURFLINE, 2004). By law only shoreline access can be limited, so it
is common for surfers to arrive by boat, although surfline.com notes that the pier winches at
the closest launch are almost always “broken”, and “If you do pull up at one of the headliner
breaks in an inflatable, chances are you will either be glared at or told to split” and “watch out
for the kamikaze Ranch local in scuba gear who specializes in pulling anchors.” As for the
land approach, security is tight and trespassing is aggressively prosecuted.
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The Ranch inspires mixed feelings among many in the surfing community. A recent article in
Surfer Magazine, for example, lamented the elitist nature of The Ranch, but at the same time,
recognized that this exclusivity has “preserved some of the last coastal wildlands left in
Southern California” (BARILOTTI, 2003). Still, places like Tavarua and The Ranch are rare.
Elsewhere, there is little tolerance for attempts to limit access to a resource, especially when
extralegal efforts to do so result in violence and property damage.
WHEN LOCALISM DOESN’T WORK
Surf localism without any legal rights to back it up is resoundingly reviled by the surfing
community, and with good reason. Without the recourse of legal sanction, localism often
descends into violence.
In 2001, a father and son trying to surf in Palos Verdes Estates brawled with a local surf gang,
resulting in trips to the hospital, misdemeanor charges, and subsequent efforts by the
community to prevent future violence, including a camera monitor and a neighborhood watch
system (WEISS, 2002). Also in 2002, three San Francisco surfers faced felony assault charges
after fighting with another surfer and telling him “Don't ever . . . surf here again”
(GATHRIGHT, 2002). Similar instances in the past led to ultimately unsuccessful legislation
proposed in California that would have made it explicit in state law that no one may “lawfully
claim the right to a wave” (GATHRIGHT, 2002). The law would also have classified a
surfboard as a “deadly weapon” if used in an assault.
The success and legitimacy of (or at least blind eye of the law to) the lobster gangs of Maine
is now well recognized – but policymakers and law enforcement agencies can see that the
arrangement clearly protects the exhaustible lobster resource. Waves, on the other hand, are
not exhaustible resources, and so without some form of legally recognized access rights,
attempts to territorialize surf spots will likely only increase conflict rather than decrease it.
THE ETIQUETTE ALTERNATIVE TO LOCALISM
The difficulty of enforcing territories, along with the generally open-access nature of the
seashore, has meant that surfers have been left to their own devices to try to reduce violence
and conflict on the water. They have done so by developing a fairly simple, widely-agreed
upon set of cultural norms and customs for regulating behavior. The surfer’s code of etiquette
is a widespread alternative to territorialism which is familiar to any surfer. For example, the
surfer who takes off closest to the breaking edge of the wave earns the right to surf that wave.
The cardinal sin of surf etiquette is to “drop in” on someone; that is, to take off or fall in
ahead of them on a wave.
In other words, surfers have developed the notion of a fleeting property right (the surfer up
first and closest to the breaking edge of the wave “owns” that wave as long is they are riding
it) to go with a fleeting resource (a wave moving toward dissolution on the beach). Surfing
norms that define de facto rights to valuable resources seem to be good examples of what
Robert Sugden refers to as “spontaneous order” – rules and regulations that have evolved
without conscious design (1989). These rules begin as established patterns of behavior, then
evolve over time to become norms as people “come to believe that they ought to act in ways
that maintain these patterns” (SUGDEN, 1989).
Despite the morality of the surfer’s code espoused by many who follow it, Sugden argues that
the simple expectation that others will follow the norm is the reason that it is perpetuated.
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Sugden uses the example of collecting driftwood on a beach where the convention is that the
first to arrive gets first pick of the wood that has washed ashore. Anyone who breaches this
convention harms not only whoever was first, but everyone else who expects to be first some
other day. There is no particular moral reason why the first person should get the wood, but
the breach of expectation by itself is enough because it harms everyone else who follows that
convention. This is borne out by some surf tour operators who take surfers to such remote
places that crowding is not an issue. In some of these cases, the charter groups take turns
catching waves rather than vying for the superior position needed to claim a wave
Surf etiquette has been remarkably successful at addressing the problem of overcrowding, but
it remains an informal system, and there are signs of cracks in the veneer. An Australian
gathering of legal scholars interested in surfing norms and self-regulation recently reported
that although most surfers abide by informal rules, there is also a “growing public perception
that the popularity of surfing and the overcrowding of famous surf breaks has led to a
situation where risk of injury to others through aggression” is unacceptable (FITZGERALD
and CLARKE, 2001).
Participants in this forum were all horrified at the prospect of surf police on jet skis or
legislation that would forcibly ration access to the waves. But it may be coming in some areas
anyway. Police in Palos Verdes have used jet skis to patrol the water. And at the Australian
Forum, one surfer who is now a state supreme court justice there said, “We don't want to be
tearing off numbers in the deli. But on the other hand, if people are going to commit acts of
violence, the law is going to intervene” (FITZGERALD and CLARKE, 2001). Practically, the
legally enforceable norm of free and open access to the shoreline is not going to change where
it is already well established. But if, following SUGDEN (1989), surf etiquette does not have
any real moral superiority to territoriality, then why not consider territoriality in places where
access has yet to be developed?
TERRITORIES AND SURF TOURISM
Spurred on, perhaps, by the success of Tavarua, surf tourism is a rapidly growing industry
around the world, especially in remote Pacific islands where there are few economic
alternatives to tourism. Interestingly, some proponents of sustainable tourism have proposed a
quota management system for tour operators to avoid crowding and encourage investment in
remote locales (BUCKLEY, 2002b). Crowding is especially negative for surf tourism because
crowd avoidance is one of the main motivators of surf travel.
One study of the potential for at least partial exclusivity to surfing locales looked at the case
of the Mentawai Islands near Sumatra in Indonesia, and drew on parallels to whitewater
rafting companies with exclusive permits to run tourists through the rapids of the Grand
Canyon (BUCKLEY, 2002b). The Mentawais contain many isolated, undeveloped, prime
surfing grounds. The situation is similar to a number of other locales in Indonesia where
surfing grounds quickly became overcrowded and unappealing to all but budget travelers once
they were developed for tourism. According to the author, the economic success of surf
tourism in the Mentawais “depends on identifying maximum recreation capacity” (in other
words, keeping the numbers of surfers low enough that no one feels crowded) and enforcing
restrictions to meet that capacity (BUCKLEY, 2002b). Without these restrictions, few tour
operators will be willing to invest in developing the Mentawais as a destination. So at least as
far as sustainable tourism is concerned, exclusive access rights to surfing locales may be
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ARTIFICIAL SURFING REEFS
While many surfers have claimed that there are only a finite number of good surfing spots in
any given region, some engineers are working toward creating new surf breaks by building
artificial reefs which alter the bottom topography of the ocean to generate new or improved
waves. Very few artificial surfing reefs have been built in the United States, although
thousands of wave spots have been altered both for better and (primarily) for worse through
various coastal development projects such as pipelines, jetties, harbors, and piers. This is
illustrated by the first artificial surfing reef built in the United States, Pratte’s Reef off of El
Segundo, CA. Pratte’s Reef was built in 2000 as mitigation in the first successful effort to
hold coastal developers (in this case Chevron) responsible for degrading surf spots. The
Surfrider Foundation was actively involved in the mitigation proceedings as well as the
construction and monitoring of Pratte’s Reef, successfully drawing attention to the affect of
coastal development on nearshore wave structure.
Unfortunately, Pratte’s Reef has underperformed as a wave shaper due to the steep learning
curve involved in building such a reef (BORRERO and NELSON, 2003). A nearby sewage
outfall, however, forms an unintentional break that is popular with local surfers who have
named the break “shitpipe”. Clearly, the quality of the waves overrides the “naturalness” of
what lies beneath.
It seems clear that surfing reefs built under mitigation should be as free and open to surfers as
natural waves are. But what when new surfing reefs are built absent mitigation?
One critic of the idea that artificial reef building will reduce crowding pressure from natural
breaks simply pointed out that there was no reason to believe that building more reefs
wouldn’t simply attract more rude surfers (NEWMAN, 2000). But there also seems to be no
reason to treat artificial surfing reefs in the same way as natural surfing breaks, especially if
they are built for reasons other than mitigation. Why not look to what has effectively reduced
overcrowding and conflict over valuable marine resources, including waves, in places like
Surfing etiquette and localism are both attempts to assert some form of ownership over either
waves or locales. Territorializing resources such as coral reefs in the South Pacific and
offshore fisheries in places like New Zealand has proven to be an effective remedy to
overfishing. Territorializing certain areas as a response to overcrowding waves, however, is
generally reviled by the surf community. Closer inspection of this behavior, however, reveals
that the Hawaiian originators of surfing were definitely territorial, and that one of the most
successful surf resorts in the world, Tavarua, is able to offer an uncrowded surfing experience
because of its legally enforceable exclusive access to prime surf breaks.
The key seems to be legal recognition. Without it, we get localism, which is rightly
condemned for its occasionally violent side. But as new surfing spots are developed in both
remote tourist sites and closer to home through artificial surfing reef creation, the
effectiveness of legally enforceable access rights raises interesting policy questions about
whether we might want to reconsider the bias against territorializing surfing spots.
If newly developing surf destinations in Indonesia will depend on some exclusivity of access
to both encourage investment and preclude crowding, exclusive access rights to artificial
surfing reefs would offer the same incentives to surf clubs or surf tourism ventures elsewhere.
Seabed leases for aquaculture and oil and gas exploration are commonplace, so the legal
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precedent is in clear. What is not clear is how the surfing community would react, and what,
if any, new behavioral norms might develop among an uncrowded, privileged group of surfers
(and what Marx might have to say about the role of class in all this!).
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