Surfers and the marine life of the coasts have a lot in common – including that they depend on the ecosystems that make their lives, or sport, possible.

Tucked up in the far north of Peru you’ll find Lobitos, a quiet coastal town known as one of the country’s best places to surf. Its seven wave breaks crash and glide onto sandy beaches and rocky outcrops, and its sunsets are legendary. But the waves that draw crowds of surfers each year aren’t just revered by those who ride them – their protection is enshrined in law.

In 2014, the ground-breaking Ley de Rompientes, or “law of the breakers”, came into effect, making Peru the first country in the world to give its waves legal protection. Under the law, the development of infrastructure, oil and gas exploration and fishing activities that could harm top-quality surf spots were restricted. More than once it has halted activity in Lobitos that risked disturbing the waves. The law has been seen as so effective that surfers in Chile are now campaigning for their own version.

Surf spots have proven to be highly emotive when it comes to preserving Peru’s coasts. “People take it very personally, and even go physically to stand in the place to stop the machinery from removing the soil whenever these constructions have happened,” says Alejandro Pizarro, director of research and communications at Lobitos-based charity EcoSwell. “It’s a very tight-knit community.”

But Peru’s law of the breakers wasn’t just based on affection for these beauty and sporting spots, but a recognition that they contribute to the surrounding area economically and environmentally. From the United States to Bali, a wave of evidence is building that suggests surfing can be surprisingly beneficial to the coastal ecosystem.


The idea of using economics to assess the value of surfing resources, branded “surfonomics”, has been around for a little over a decade. An early study in the field centred on Mavericks in California, a famous break that throws up waves of 10-30ft (3-9m), and draws in huge crowds of spectators.

Big wave surfer João de Macedo, a campaigner who was involved in the research, says Mavericks already had legal protection as a national marine sanctuary, but surfonomics “was something that when you talk to a politician [they could use to] justify conservation in a more practical way”. The net economic value of Mavericks was finally estimated at about $24m (£17m) a year filtering through its local tourism industry.

When we presented one of the studies in Chile, they were like: ‘You guys have got to be kidding me. Surfers are spending that much?’ – Nik Strong-Cvetich

Surfonomics studies have now been replicated at least a dozen spots across the world, including Mundaka in Spain and Uluwatu in Bali, and the methodology has been refined over the years to make it easier to replicate and quicker to complete. For many communities, it’s an important part of being recognised as a World Surfing Reserve, an international designation that helps protect the local ecosystem for surfers and gives weight to wider conservation efforts.

“It’s not rocket science in terms of ecological economics,” admits Nik Strong-Cvetich, executive director of international environmental surf coalition Save The Waves, which designates surf spots as World Surfing Reserves.

“When we originally started surfonomics, it was just to kind of say, ‘Hey surfing has value’. But now we want to make sure that we’ve proven the value of all these places we’re protecting. When we presented one of the studies in Chile, they were like: ‘You guys have got to be kidding me. Surfers are spending that much?’ But, like, they are.”

In fact, contrary to its laid-back image, surfing is a huge and lucrative international industry. Having initially been reticent to assign a monetary value to waves, UK environmental surf charity Surfers Against Sewage estimated in 2013 that surfing contributes £1-1.8bn ($1.4-2.5bn) per year across the UK and could have an overall economic impact of as much as £5bn ($7bn).

Back in Peru, EcoSwell’s Pizarro, who has a background in political science, had always suspected that surfers made a big contribution to Lobitos. And while the town had its waves under legal protection, surfonomics was an opportunity to understand just how much the town depended on surfing.

The idea of having stats is to be able to argue that there’s huge importance in taking care of these environmental issues, because of the amount of money they mean – Alejandro Pizarro

So EcoSwell set up a survey, headed by Marcos Abilio Bosquetti, a management researcher at the Federal University of Santa Catarina in Brazil and member of the International Association of Surfing Academics. The aim was to find out how much surfing was worth to the community, asking how much people spent, where they came from and what they valued in the area.

When the charity crunched the numbers in 2020, together with Bosquetti, even they were surprised by how much: $3.6m (£2.6m) in 2019 – a substantial portion of the municipality’s total annual budget.

The other thing that surprised Pizarro was how many people would not return to Lobitos for environmental reasons such as visible trash or the creaking public sewage system, which, in his own words, “looks like a horror film”. Tourists were particularly put off by the presence of oil rigs and pumping sites, which are still active on and offshore.

By Isabella Kaminski