Protecting What We Love – the fight for clean water, clean beaches & clean waves for everyone

By Hugo Tagholm, Chief Executive, Surfers Against Sewage.

Surfers Against Sewage has always been driven by individuals who love and use the sea, whose lives beat in time with the ebb and the flow of the tides, the rise and fall of swells. People who believe passionately in protecting our wild, unique and inspirational coastal spaces – our surf spots.

Now in our 25th year, Surfers Against Sewage has arguably become one of the World’s most effective ‘enviro-surf’ organisations alongside our friends at the Surfrider Foundation, Save the Waves, WildCoast and a number of smaller .orgs.  I’m proud to lead a team who drive strong political action, educate & inspire communities and create positive change to protect the UK’s precious marine environment. Waves, environment, community – these are the words that today reflect SAS’s ethos and campaigns.

The UK coastline includes perhaps some of the most interesting and diverse examples of free natural spaces that the country has to offer, our beaches. Encapsulating an infinitely diverse range of waves, wildlife and scenery, there is a space for everyone, unique and breathtaking, where some of our most powerful memories are formed. Beaches are an amazing natural resource, a great social unifier, bringing together people from all walks of life. Unsurprisingly, SAS members truly love their stretch of coastline, feel protective over their corner of this great island, and as such are uniquely placed to protect and conserve 13,000 miles of fantastic natural, coastal capital that the UK is blessed with. I believe that this sense of ownership & belonging is critical to the never-ending task of protecting our sites of special surfing interest, not just in the UK, but worldwide.

I’ve often described members of Surfers Against Sewage as a marine indicator species, exposed to environmental issues first-hand – walking across beaches thick with marine litter, surfing at the mouths of sewer overflows and acutely sensitive to coastal changes at their favourite beaches. They share these special places with the marine flora & fauna, and are often first to witness the mounting anthropogenic pressures facing our shores. They aren’t just passive observers of the ocean but are immersed in the sea, part of the ecosystem itself. It’s perhaps this intensity of experiences that helps us deliver positive change for beaches from Land’s End to John O’Groats. As the great Jacques Cousteau once said “People protect what they love”.

Unsurprisingly, bathing water quality remains a core Surfers Against Sewage campaign and one many supporters are increasingly concerned about. It will feature as a key theme for debate in our forthcoming All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG), bringing together UK politicians from both government & opposition. The alarming and escalating return of raw sewage pollution from the UK’s network of over 30,000 sewer overflows is the sinister new culprit on the block and UK surf spots are directly in the firing line. The new battlelines have been drawn and we have tasked ourselves to drive forward solutions to this through SAS’s APPG.

Alarmingly, SAS has been the sole voice calling for and providing free real-time water quality information for UK beaches & surf spots. Since the start of the bathing season this year our pioneering real-time water quality alerts have unfortunately been working overtime. The last few days alone have been no exception, with Surfers Against Sewage ‘first on the scene’ after significant raw sewage spills right across the southwest and traversing some of the best north-eastern surf spots.

Since the launch of our real-time water quality alerts, we have issued warnings for almost 4,000 separate, significant sewage pollution incidents, including at some of our most loved surf spots. These are, by the water companies’ own metrics, pollution levels that pose a serious threat to water quality & human health. Sewage pollution can cause serious health implications to those exposed to it, from the relatively minor ear, eye and throat infections through to gastroenteritis and even hepatitis. This is why real-time water quality information is so important to protect you. Ultimately we want to see sewage free beaches and surf spots but there are many steps to take to achieve this.

The Safer Seas Service enables us to catalogue sewage pollution incidents, allowing us to build the case to against the worst offending spots and supporting the call for infrastructure investment in the right places. Policy changes SAS is also currently lobbying for to help better protect all surfers and recreational water users include:

  • Extending the bathing season to better represent the times of the year the public use the sea, with the period from Easter to the end of the October half term being our minimum recommendation. At a recent Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (Defra) consultation over 70% of the respondents called for a longer season. Regular water quality testing only occurs during the bathing season and CSO discharges are better regulated during this period.
  • Make real time combined sewer overflow warnings (i.e. The Safer Seas Service) mandatory at all affected bathing waters. Currently, SAS has to invest a huge amount of campaigning and lobbying time just to access this information.
  • Review the bathing water quality sampling spots to ensure results accurately represent what the public can expect to experience across designated recreational bathing waters.  Surfers Against Sewage recently teamed up with the European Centre for the Environment & Human Health (Exeter University Medical School) to produce a study to help identify the health risks associated with exposure to marine pollution. The survey will help to assess the accuracy of current water quality monitoring procedures. The current sampling strategy involves taking on average a single weekly water sample from designated beach during the bathing season, which typically runs from 15th May to 30th September. Yet water quality at a single beach can vary enormously throughout the day and at different points along the length of a beach.

There could also be serious economic impacts associated with sewage pollution incidents – cancelled surf lessons, cafes with reduced takings and B&Bs with cancelled reservations amongst many other things. Last year, Surfers Against Sewage issued an economic report on the value of surfing to the UK economy, which estimated an overall contribution of £1.8 billion annually. This further demonstrated the case as to why it is so important to drastically reduce the frequency of sewer overflow discharges at our beautiful beaches and surf spots, not just in Cornwall, but nationwide.

Marine litter is another huge area for SAS in 2014. With the amount of marine litter pollution doubling at UK beaches in just the last fifteen years, the marine litter crisis alone shows the need for increased action to protect our shores. Surfers Against Sewage will be publishing a Marine Litter Report in October 2014, mapping out a 5-year action plan to 2020 to reduced UK beach litter by at least 50%. We take action at every level on the issue, lobbying government & industry, and importantly engaging up to 10,000 community volunteers annually to tackle the issue directly through beach cleans. A litter free coastline and ocean might be a big call, but it would be the dream result.

Joining Surfers Against Sewage is one of the best ways you can support the campaigns. SAS represents a powerful collective of surfer, swimmers, board riders, beach lovers and environmentalists. As a member you’ll be adding your voice to the campaign and be the first to know about our initiatives nationwide.