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Thursday, February 15, 2007

Surfing for a Cleaner Sound

January 2007
Surfing for a Cleaner Sound
An interview with a Northwest surfer
By Sierra Smith

Ryan McEliece’s love of surfing has taught him a lot about what is happening in our waters.
“Every time I surf up in the Northwest, I am awestruck,” says McEliece, describing his experience in Washington’s waters. “Moments of solitude when the water will go dead calm, you are in a lull and a bird will fly over head. You just look back at the shore, the dark green water, majestic mountains covered in snow…”

After hearing McEliece’s words about surfing it isn’t hard to see how the sport inspired him to move in an environmental direction. Dirty beaches or murky water can easily interrupt moments of solitude.

As a freshman at Western in Bellingham, Ryan McEliece thought he’d study business. But after volunteering with Surfrider, a non-profit organization dedicated to the protection and enjoyment of the world’s waves, he shifted his academic focus to a degree in Environmental and Resource Management. A surfer since his teens, McEliece is now an environmental specialist for the Department of Ecology’s Environmental Assessment Program.

Surfing in Sewage

“Surfrider definitely opened my mind a lot,” he admits. “I was first intrigued by the water quality monitoring with the Blue Water Taskforce. I didn’t think about water quality being an issue up here.”

McEliece explains that after a heavy rain, our sewage systems can discharge. Most of us aren’t swimming around in the 40- to 60-degree water, so the overflow can go unnoticed. Unless, of course, you are a surfer.

“At the time, there really wasn’t any monitoring and I was intrigued by that,” he says, describing his early experience with the non-profit. “Surfrider was influential and led the way to where I took my education, my career. ”

For many water enthusiasts, Surfrider provides an opportunity to give back to the community and the environment they love to play in.

“It’s important because [Surfrider] helps keep beaches clean and monitors water quality,” says McEliece, who dons a 6mm wetsuit, hoody, gloves and booties to surf the Northwest’s chilly water. “There are some surf spots near sewage outfalls that pose a risk to surfers—coastal erosion and population growth are also problems.”

Surfrider gives surfers a unified voice.

McEliece explains, “Before, it was just a bunch of guys saying things, now it’s an organized body, we have a voice and we can actually do a lot and get a lot done this way.”

Surfers as Stewards

Since joining Surfrider, McEliece has cleaned beaches and painted over graffiti-covered bathrooms. The experience helps him feel like he is part of something, instead of simply enjoying the ocean and then leaving.

McEliece points out that one of the biggest challenges surfers in Washington face is beach access. Only a small percentage of our beaches are accessible to the public. He hopes the surfing community will work with Tribal Nations and government agencies to build a healthier relationship and improve access.

“The biggest challenge is to take care of things now, with monitoring and mitigation, before they become a bigger problem.”

Sierra Smith is a Seattle-based writer.


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