Notes From the Field: Baja Surfonomics Study

Notes From the Field: Baja Surfonomics Study

On June 21st, the Bahia de Todos Santos was dedicated as the sixth World Surfing Reserve and it was my task to kick off our conservation efforts with a “Surfonomics” study.   As a STW Surfonomics fellow, I am focused on quantifying the economic value of the waves in this area and especially, the famous right hand point break at San Miguel.  An economic valuation of waves is accomplished through in person surveys to determine how much an average travelling surfer spends on things like food, transportation, lodging and equipment within the WSR boundaries.  Through undertaking this expenditure analysis, we can make a strong case that surfing and quality waves like San Miguel are a central factor that helps bring in money to the local economy and that the waves themselves are highly valuable not only to surfers, but local business as well.  Save The Waves’ Surfonomics studies seek to inform decision makers and the local and international community of the economic value of waves and healthy coastlines. Through this collaborative study with the Monterey Institute of International Studies’ Center for the Blue Economy, one of STW’s core objectives is to support the approval of Baja California’s first state park at San Miguel.

Today though, a survey day at San Miguel, the parking lot is pretty empty.  It is the off-season and if I happen to come upon a gringo in the parking lot to carry out a survey for the study, I run towards them with excitement.  As I watch the ripples on the water, a truck comes down the road with California plates.  Two guys from San Diego have just come back from the dusty and wind-carved south of Baja. I approach them with confidence, but a light hesitation as we all know the feeling we get when someone approaches us, especially at our sacred spots, with pencil, paper, and a clipboard.

They have been coming down here for over twenty years and provide some valuable insight on why a Surfonomics study here is so important, but also difficult.

Summertime in Ensenada is not a good time for surfing. Unless you are a frothing local kid who dots the lineup at Playa Hermosa! Photo: Trent Hodges


STW’s previous Surfonomics studies in Bali, Spain and Chile have successfully demonstrated the value of surfing tourism to local economies.  These studies give decision-makers and community members sound economic data to justify working towards clean water, well-planned development and necessary infrastructure to preserve wave quality and maintain ecosystem health.  Mexico however, presents an interesting challenge to the classic Surfonomics survey design.

Around 2008, Mexico’s drug war escalated and the classic minor Baja anxiety over robberies and petty theft transformed into a profound fear associated with the violence between drug cartels.  I was one of these surfers affected by the news.  My weekend trips down to Mexico during college in San Diego abruptly stopped when it seemed like everyday there was a news article about some unthinkable violent act. “With any hint of a south swell in the 80’s the parking lot at San Miguel would be full of Californians” the San Diego surfer told me.  “Now, it’s just us.”

While the number of American surfers has dwindled, the number of local surfers has increased exponentially.  Ensenada now has five different surf schools and on a weekend morning at Playa Hermosa you can see plenty of kids and young adults standing stiff legged and smiling ear to ear on soft tops. The decrease in visiting surfers and the increase of locals in the water meant that we needed to change our project design in order to accurately capture the dollars and cents of surfing in Ensenada.

Instead of waiting hours at San Miguel for 1 or 2 Americans to come through, we took our surveys to the beach at Playa Hermosa to understand how a local surfing economy is being built through surf schools.  We designed an Internet survey that will soon be shared throughout Ensenada to help us understand how much money is being spent in local surf shops, on gas, restaurants, and hotels/hostels that directly correlate to the surf economy. After being here only a couple of weeks, it became apparent that a surfing economy and culture isn’t just driven by surfers on vacation, but is fortified through a strong local presence in the surf.

As the summer comes to an end, the water begins to cool, and we look forward to northwest swells, we are also organizing a local team of volunteers to carry out the survey work during the peak season at San Miguel.  As San Miguel is revived from its summer sleep, we will be ready to accurately document how important surfing and surfers are to the economy of Ensenada during the high season.

Ensenada, the birthplace of Mexican surfing, has been awarded the prestigous honor of becoming a World Surfing Reserve.  The task at hand now is to ensure that the designation as a WSR and the economic valuation of surfing we provide supports and promotes sound coastal management policies and conservation efforts.   Ensenada has had a renaissance in its local surfing culture and the waves are more valuable and vulnerable than ever.  With the momentum and support from the local surf community, our valued local partners, and travelling surfers, we are confident that the pieces are in place to achieve long-term protection of this amazing stretch of coastline and its world-class waves.

The WSR plaque and iconic pelican that now grace the visitors at San Miguel. Photo: Fernando Marvan

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