An Interview With Surfers Agains Sewage’s Hugo Tagholme

24 . 04 . 16

Surfers Against Sewage are a charity very dear to our hearts here at Otter Surfboards; based just over the hill in the neighbouring village of St Agnes and initially founded to tackle poor water quality on our local beaches, they have developed into one of the country’s leading marine environmental charities campaigning on a wide range of issues. We call the people who work there our friends, and as well as sharing waves with them we are also lucky enough to work alongside them from time to time, be that by donating prizes to their annual raffle, running special workshop sessions with their outside events team as we did last year at Somersault music festival, or James being invited to talk at events that they run such as the Global Wave Conference. Mat recently sat down with Hugo to ask him about SAS’s work and to get his take on the marine environment and the threats that face it.


​This year’s Big Spring Beach Clean series looks set to see the largest turnout yet – how have you seen this grow year-on-year?

When I started in 2008 the Big Spring Beach Clean was one beach clean at Porthtowan – that’s all it was. It was a small community event with 20-30 people who came along to do a great job for the beautiful beach of Porthtowan. We have specifically evolved it because we are, as it were, the UK’s leading marine conservation charity representing people who truly live and breath and use the sea, and therefore we wanted to give them more opportunities to actually participate. Of course beach cleans are those moments when people can actually make a tangible difference and meet like-minded people, but make a difference first and foremost to the beach that they love, but it also fits into the national agenda that we work on which addresses a global issue as this is something that is threatening marine habitats around the world, and in fact I think it’s safe to say that it’s an even bigger threat to the health of our oceans than sewage here ever was – maybe not to the people directly using the sea in certain spots, but it’s a huge global issue so it’s great that people can interface and understand the issue at their local beach and then see what we’re doing at the top level. We’ve seen it grow from just that one beach clean to now this year there’ll be 220-odd beach cleans around the country, 7500 volunteers in the single biggest mobilisation of community volunteers at the beachfront in the UK. It’s been a great journey to see that happen.

Are SAS growing beyond surfers, and attracting a broader base of support?

Yes, I mean widely speaking Surfers Against Sewage is a big misnomer, you know we are surfers – I surf, Andy surfs, Dom and Pete surf, David and Jack bodysurf, the whole team interacts with the sea and they love the sea – but we don’t just represent surfers, we represent anyone and everyone who loves and uses the sea – or even doesn’t use the sea and just wants to be part of what we do and believes in what we do. So that’s the “Surfers” part of it, and then the “Against” can remain, and the “Sewage” part is not really the lead of what we do any more. It’s a big part of what we do, we’ve got a big campaign, the Sewage Free Seas campaign at the moment which is a big opportunity to prevent sewage entering the seas through sewer overflows, but truthfully speaking the big zeitgeist campaign is marine litter.

We’ve seen all sort of community initiatives spring up over the last few years following on from the agenda that SAS, the Marine Conservation Society and other big charities have set, and lots of community groups are springing up because they truly see this issue at their beach. You can walk along any beach in the country and see plastic pollution on the high tide line and people have said enough is enough, this is environmental vandalism, there are big companies and corporates making money from packaging and over-packaging things and we want to take action, and we’re on a journey with that. We realise that even over the past few years the narrative has changed from people wanting to come out more and more, and they still will do that, but they’re now saying, we’re going to come out more and we’re going to pick up more, but how are we going to stop this litter getting in the sea, and the true win on marine litter will be stopping the flow of plastic into the ocean. It won’t be recovering and reusing it necessarily, although we are doing that with our initiative. And so that truly is the lead interest with our members, but there’s all sorts of other things – people want to be part of the advocacy of surf spots, talking about our sites of special surfing interest around the coastline, valuing them and promoting them in the right way, making sure that the public recognise them as unique entities.

It’s all too commonly thought in the public domain that you can get good waves anywhere on any beach you know, you just turn up and there’ll be waves, but a beach like Fistral or a reef like Porthleven or reefs like Thurso or Staithes, all of these are unique wonders of nature, you can’t just remake them. And so I think now we have a much broader remit. The first issue of Pipeline, the cover of that stated that SAS were set up as a single issue pressure group to end the marine sewage disposal, and we’ve evolved away from that, that isn’t all we do and we’re now a registered charity, we’re operating very effectively at community, corporate and government, legislative level, and it’s great to see that journey carry on.

Do you think that the “hands-on” events, such as beach cleans, help to engage people beyond simply paying a subscription or making a donation? Are they of value beyond simply removing litter from our beaches?

Absolutely. The community events, when the community gets together, one of the biggest things it does is to make local decision makers – whether they’re café or business owners, or councilors or politicians, it makes them listen. They see these people who are part of their electorate or in their constituency, their customers, and when you’ve got two or three hundred people coming along to the Big Spring Beach Clean at Penhale or when you’ve got BBC’s The One Show covering it, politicians realise that this is important and that people do care. The community action dovetails directly with things like our All Party Parliamentary Group in Westminster – there’s no way that we would have that group if people didn’t turn up and join us at these things around the country because politicians would say “why are we going to get together and support what you guys are saying”…so it’s really important that the community carries on growing and reacting with us.

Surfers Against Sewage have grown from a single-issue pressure group (campaigning against sewage pollution) into a much broader marine environmental charity that campaigns on a number of issues. How have the pressures on the coastal environment developed over the course of your tenure at the helm of SAS?

Well, without a doubt marine litter, even within the relatively short time (certainly if we’re looking at the whole lifespan of the planet), in the tiny amount of time that I’ve been here we’ve seen the marine litter debate change massively, with many more people coming to the forefront of it. We’ve seen evidence coming out about the sources of marine litter and it’s impacts upon marine species, and so there’s now a much greater appetite amongst global stakeholders. We’ve seen big innovations, things like the ocean clean-up project talking about trying to harvest and collect all of the plastic in the gyres, we’ve seen lots of community groups springing up, we’ve seen European legislators talking about how to ban things like microplastics and microbeads. It’s an interesting debate, and also I think that with climate change, the oceans have become front and centre to that debate, we see the impact on reefs and ironically reefs are one of the things that surfers rely on the most to get the best waves and reefs are under severe threat from climate change.

We see a broadening of these issues and then of course they’re all impacting the wildlife that we see –I’m sure that you’ve seen dead dolphins on the beach or entangled seals, and whether it’s fishing gear or other plastics killing animals, we get endless reports of whales with stomachs full of plastic bags or plastic detritus, and that’s why it’s so important to have campaigns like our Break the Bag Habit campaign where you get a seemingly tiny levy on plastic bags, which changes behavior and reduces the amount of plastic bags in circulation or given out at supermarkets by about 80%, and so you see that there’s a direct correlation with that and protecting the beach and the wildlife around the beach. It’s evolving fast both in terms of the impact of the issues, and the solutions to those. It’s also probably worth saying that there’s been a real change in looking at things like plastic because people say “it’s just rubbish, it’s just waste on the beach” but there’s now an increasing narrative around this being a really important resource and we can’t just chuck it away any more, it can’t end up in the sea because it’s too valuable to loose.

So we see initiatives springing up with innovators and disruptors like Bureo Skateboards making skateboards out of recovered fishing nets or carpet tiles made out of recovered and recycled marine litter. So you see innovation, but the ultimate innovation will be stopping this litter from ending up in the sea which is where we’re really focused on now, whether it’s getting people to refuse using single use plastic bottles with our Turn On the Tap campaign with Clean Cornwall, all of those things are important drivers to proper societal change and hopefully we’ll see an outright shift at some stage. We’re on a see-saw and we’re not quite at the tipping point but at some stage hopefully we will shift and we’ll all look back and say “why on earth were we giving out and using this many resources and this much packaging which was largely useless.”

It can’t all be doom and gloom, we have to be aspirational and have the courage to look to the future. I met the Australian author Tim Winton a few years ago and we were talking about how to remain optimistic in a time that’s pretty challenging for the environment and he said “you’ve got to have the courage to do what you do even with the knowledge that you may not see the change that you want to see within your lifetime” and so you’re not just doing it for you, you’re doing it to tip yourself towards that point, and that’s true. We’ve got to try. We’ve got one roll of the dice and we’ve got to try and convert that into as much positive change as we can.

It’s a really basic example, but I play a bit of 5-a-side football, my son loves football, and if you go to your local football fields the bins there are full of lucozade bottles and other bottles that are all in pristine condition, they just need a rinse out and they could go in the recycling, but they’re in the bin because there’s no recycling bin there. Why is society looking to go into the ocean to recover this stuff and make stuff? It needs to be taken out of the ocean, but actually we can stop it from getting into these landfills from where a lot of it ends up leaking into the sea. There’s a perverse nature to it. You walk through any city, you look in any bin, and it’s full of recycling. We’re talking about solutions at the end of that journey, the projects to clean up the ocean gyres are amazing projects in terms of their vision and depth, whether it will actually work or not, but the bottom line is don’t try and get everything at the end, get it at the beginning! Or even before then, by addressing the design process and material choices.

What concerns do you have for the future of our coastal and marine environment?

I think that plastic pollution is clearly one of the biggest things alongside climate change, and this actual change in the chemistry of our oceans. We’ve seen recent reports from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation about the projections that by 2050 there’ll be more plastic than fish in the sea, and so we’re talking about a huge, huge, issue. You couple that with overfishing and the need to protect more of our ocean because so little of it is protected, and really treating it like a fragile resource that needs to be well managed. It can’t just be plundered endlessly, it isn’t an infinite resource and we will deplete it and so many of the world’s population rely on fish for their protein. We’ve got to think about it in a much more holistic, joined-up way. Even in terms of the displacement of local communities when you have a community that’s relied on fishing for centuries that then, because of commercial fishing boats coming in and getting a license from dubious government agencies, are displaced because there’s no more fish left for them and they have to migrate. Its impact upon the destruction of the fabric of society is a concern. In terms of our agenda, plastics, climate change and water quality will continue – although water quality is an issue that’s changing the whole time and we’re in a very mature part of that campaign with combined sewage overflows and what can realistically be done short of digging up and rebuilding our sewage infrastructure.

What shifts do you see happening within both surf culture, and the surf industry?

There’s definitely a shift in the surf industry towards looking at sustainability as a core metric of evaluating how they’re doing, although I certainly wouldn’t say that it’s a priority for many, if any businesses. We have leaders like Finisterre and Patagonia who are really driving that agenda forward and designing products that last and products that have a lower impact than other brands. We can never produce anything without any impact though. We hosted the Global Wave Conference which I would say is the biggest thing that’s ever happened within the enviro-surf sector, bringing together leading athletes with sustainable brands not just within the surf industry but people like Interface Carpets too, and leading thinkers on marine plastics, people like Professor Richard Thompson, and it was an amazing thing to see the surf industry listening more. We have great support from the Surf Industry Manufacturers Association who are based out in the States who make a contribution to our ongoing work. It’s moving in the right direction. I think that there are big elephants in the room with surfing, it’s a sport that relies on this sense of free-spirited travel, to go where you want to go and explore, but that isn’t necessarily always conducive with creating a positive impact or change where you do go.

I think we could honestly look at some of the examples around the world – Bali has a huge plastic problem along its coastline and that will have had a huge contribution from the growth in the population due to tourism, and that is due in part to the popularity of surfing. These things are interlinked, and I think it’s down to us as surfers to try and do more. Just because we’re in the ocean surfing, it doesn’t make us environmentalists. I think that sometimes there’s a confusion on that point, that actually the really key part of the journey is taking action, so you’re in the water, you see the problem, you see the things you love in the water, you get some waves, but then how do you give back? What do you want to do to thank Mother Ocean? It’s not just being in the ocean that makes you a person who’s having a positive impact.

Are surfers becoming more aware, or acting upon their concerns?

I think so. We’ve seen so many surf NGOs spring up over the past twenty years, people are trying to drive sustainable board technology, more wetsuit technology, recycling initiatives, engaging the local communities, we’re seeing organisations like the WSL launching their Pure initiative with Columbia University. So we see more interest. I don’t think it’s a massive proportion of surfers generally, and maybe a lot of surfers choose to give back through other routes, and as we said before there’s a diversity within the surfing community and as a surfer you may support Oxfam or the National Trust, you may support a local charity – there’s lots of ways that surfers can and do give back to society at large. I don’t think there’re any studies out there that have identified whether there’s more prevalence to giving to other initiatives and good causes if you are a surfer, but it’d be interested to know if there is some sort of switch that it helps create. Fundamentally, and I think surfers would have to acknowledge this, it’s a selfish pursuit, and an individual pursuit, that’s more often than not about competing to get all that you want, and that isn’t necessarily the same mindset as giving back to the environment.

Do you think that the surf industry is reacting to demand from the surfing general public, or leading?

I think they’re probably reacting to market trends, more broadly speaking, and people in their consumer habits are starting to wake up to resource limitations, consumerism and how they can minimise their impact, although I don’t know that it’s necessarily a primary driver in most people’s choices. Unfortunately in this day and age there’s lots of things that trump it, like convenience – we live busy lives, we’re rushing around, it’s hard to break out of some of the things that we’re exposed to whether it be food packaging on the go, or when it comes down to things like our surfboards, our wetsuits and our clothes, price can be very key. Money isn’t sloshing around quite like it was in the late 80s and 90s and now we’ve had the crash and people watch their wallets, and it can be difficult for the environmental leaders to compete with that. At Surfers Against Sewage we’re committed to producing things with organic cottons, recycled materials and water-based inks so that our products are the least toxic and have the least impact, but yet we still get people asking why our products are so expensive. But we are committed to having the lowest impact possible, and that’s what it takes.

What changes would you like to see happening in the surf industry?

I think there are a few things that we need to look at. The sustainability of the core products that we use which are largely petroleum based such as surfboards and wetsuits, those items, and I think that it’s pretty important for the industry to recognise even further the efforts of the people who are looking to protect the spots that are important to surfing – and I don’t just say that in the interests of Surfers Against Sewage – but all of the great work being done by Surfrider Foundation, Save the Waves, people who are really trying to take things forward. These aren’t cash rich charities, these aren’t people who are taking any dividends, these are just people who are committed to doing good for what they believe in and I think that their work can sometimes be underfunded.

Do you think that surfers are becoming more accepting of alternative materials and technologies in their surfboards?

Absolutely. Definitely there’s a sub-culture within surfing of the “eco-surfer” who seek out the brands that represent their values. I wouldn’t say it’s the vast majority yet, but there’s definitely a strong movement within the community.

If you had one message for surfers, what would it be?

Do something good for the spot you love.

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