Bored Competition

The ocean stinks, but surfers are too busy to help clean it up

When former world surfing champ Shaun Tompson surfed the world, he had no worries about the water. Now that he works and surfs full-time in Southern California, Tompson gets a hepatitis vaccination every year.

"Pollution was very seldom an issue when I was on tour, because most of the competitions are in pristine places—like Tahiti, you know?" Tompson says. "But now I do most of my surfing along the California coast, so I take precautions."

He advises the same for those entered in the U.S. Open of Surfing in Huntington Beach, which opens Monday and runs through August 3.

"Surfing in polluted water can have an impact on your career. Get sick, and you can be out of the water for weeks," Tompson said. "If I were on tour now, it would be of great concern to me."

You'd figure it would be of great concern to all surfers. But most surfers don't raise a stink about lousy water quality.

"Surfers don't care," says Sam George, editor of Surfer magazine and a former professional surfer. "The main reason is that surfing in urban areas requires a certain amount of delusion. You have 400 guys fighting for waves at Huntington Beach, bumping rails—and each guy thinks he's doing something unique. They sit out there, looking to the horizon, not talking to each other, all convincing themselves they are these lone souls who are doing something special in this most basic of natural environments."

It's little different in the multibillion-dollar surfing industry, dominated by companies within whiffing distance of OC's degraded waters. They sell their products by selling the concept of a natural environment in slick advertising photos, logos and slogans. But they generally have a rotten record of recycling their profits into environmental causes.

"The surf industry is the garment industry in disguise—it's just fashion," says Glenn Hening, who helped found the Surfrider Foundation in 1984 and now monitors surf-industry philanthropy for the Groundswell Society. "If all you are selling are fashion-conscious images of natural splendor and a carefree lifestyle, who is really going to believe there are problems?"

According to Sean Smith, managing director of the Surf Industry Manufacturers Association (SIMA), surf industry sales amount to $4 billion a year. Since SIMA was founded in 1989, its contributions to environmental causes—culled from its annual Waterman's Ball weekend at tony Orange County coastal resorts—add up to about $2 million. That's $2 million total in 14 years.

"Chump change," scoffs Hening. "If you have $100 in your pocket and you toss a bum a dime, you're being more charitable than the surf industry. The ocean is filthy because the surf industry doesn't need a clean ocean to make a buck."

Legendary surfwear manufacturer O'Neill—now based in Irvine—is making a big deal out of sponsoring this year's U.S. Open (in conjunction with the massive International Marketing Group). On the company website, O'Neill president Kelly Gibson gushes: "By partnering with IMG, O'Neill can elevate the U.S. Open to the next level, bringing more awareness to the O'Neill brand, clothing and wetsuits, while at the same time giving back to our local retailers and the industry that has supported us over the years."

But what does Gibson have to say about the water quality that surfers will have to deal with when they compete in the U.S. Open that is sponsored by his company? Nothing. We asked that question via e-mail, and this is what came back: "O'Neill feels very strongly about cleaning the ocean and educating our children about the beauty of our oceans."

The Association of Surfing Professionals (ASP) also has little to say on the subject. The U.S. Open went off as scheduled in 1999, even though massive beach contamination and beach closures plagued Orange County that summer. ASP officials reacted to the pollution by trying not to talk about it. The "strategy" worked: during the surf contest, high bacteria counts suddenly disappeared. The promoters and sponsors didn't talk much about that, either.

In fact, the U.S. Open's then-director Ian Cairns didn't sound surprised when the Weekly reported that county water tests subsequently showed bacterial levels had exceeded state limits during at least one day of competition (Arrissia Owen's "Wipe Out," September 24, 1999). Cairns filed the discovery under the category of "a major concern," but absolutely denied the U.S. Open should have been shut down.

"I don't think it's fair to single out Huntington Beach," he said at the time. "I live in Aliso Viejo, and I can smell it. There are problems in all areas. Why doesn't the sanitation department fix these problems?"

It's a fair question, but Cairns never attended an Orange County Sanitation District (OCSD) board meeting to ask. It's been one year since intense public pressure forced the OCSD to promise it will finally live up to the 1972 Clean Water Act and improve the quality of the 10-million-gallons-an-hour of sewage it flushes into the ocean off Huntington Beach. But that upgrade won't be completed for about another decade, at which time OC can congratulate itself for meeting 40-year-old minimum standards.

Still, it's better than nothing, which is exactly how much direct money and effort the major surf-industry companies contributed to this crucial fight to clean the ocean for the surfers who keep them in business. None of the executives from any of the industry giants based in OC—O'Neill, Quiksilver, Ocean Pacific, Billabong USA—ever showed up at Sanitation District meetings to throw their big-money influence behind the fight to better clean the county's sewage.

One CEO who did show up was Shaun Tompson, who was so concerned about ocean pollution that he drove down to OCSD meetings several times from Santa Barbara, where he runs a little surfwear company called Solitude Clothing. But even with his reputation and world surfing titles, his impassioned words from the podium during public-comment sessions didn't carry the same clout to the politicians on the board.

Nobody from the ASP made so much as a peep.

"If surfers gave a shit, they would be a powerful environmental force," says George, the Surfer editor. "But they don't. On the whole, surfers are probably the least environmentally concerned faction living along the coast of California, and they get no support in that area from their multibillion-dollar industry."

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