Surf Breaks

Surf breaks are a finite natural resource that provide recreational and amenity values for a diverse and increasingly large range of participants. Surf breaks are part of the natural character and landscapes of the New Zealand coastline/coastal environment, of which there are relatively few when compared to the total length of the New Zealand 4428

Approximately 7% [310,000] of New Zealanders are estimated to surf on a regular basis 4429 .  Surf-riding contributes to the well-being of participants by allowing them to interact with the natural environment, promoting health and fitness and cross cultural and intergenerational camaraderie.  All this is based on a very simple experience - riding a wave, in particular a wave with the right characteristics - a “surf break”. 

 Internationally, surfing is recognised as one of the foremost lifestyle sports. The international surf industry was estimated to be worth $8 billion in 2003.  There are estimated to be around 24 million surfers world- wide 4430 .  The sport and its lifestyle have experienced rapid growth over the last three decades with the advent of professional surfing and its popularity as a recreation.  Surfing and use of surf breaks for recreation will only continue to grow.  This is increasing the demand for the allocation of space for surf riding as a recreation.

Competition for space in the coastal marine area coupled with conflict over coastal activities hindering surf breaks has prompted developments in the field of surfing science and social research on surf breaks 4431 .  Although not traditionally considered as expert literature, similar work is increasingly apparent in surfing magazines and online material.  Together with an emerging academic focus they provide a broad understanding to a new field in coastal management.  This has resulted in an increased understanding of the coastal dynamics of surf breaks and the social, cultural, environmental and economic values they have 4432 .    

The maintenance and protection of surf breaks is relevant to several aspects of the Resource Management Act 1991, particularly the purpose and principles of the Act, the purpose of Regional Policy Statements and the purpose of regional plans. The New Zealand Coastal Policy Statement 2010 (NZCPS) also includes policy specific to surf breaks.

The need for recognising surf breaks in policy is important in light of rapidly increasing demands influencing land and water (fresh and marine) usage and ultimately affecting the integrity of the coastal environment.  However, to date there is no consistent, agreed method by which policy makers and planners identify and provide for surf breaks in New Zealand. The Taranaki Regional Policy Statement 2009 (the first policy to provide for surf break protection under the RMA) and the Auckland Plan process are explained below. 

What is a surf break

The NZCPS defines a surf break as:

“A natural feature that is comprised of swell, currents, water levels, seabed morphology, and wind. The hydrodynamic character of the ocean (swell, currents and water levels) combines with seabed morphology and winds to give rise to a ‘surfable wave’. A surf break includes the ‘swell corridor’ through which the swell travels, and the morphology of the seabed of that wave corridor, through to the point where waves created by the swell dissipate and become non-surfable. ‘Swell corridor’ means the region offshore of a surf break where ocean swell travels and transforms to a ‘surfable wave’. ‘Surfable wave’ means a wave that can be caught and ridden by a surfer. Surfable waves have a wave breaking point that peels along the unbroken wave crest so that the surfer is propelled laterally along the wave crest” 4433

 How surf breaks are formed

 Surf breaks are the result of the dynamic combination of bathymetry, water levels, exposure to swell, and wind conditions which creates waves which ‘peel’ at a suitable angle or speed and breaking intensity for surfers to ride.

 There are four main geomorphic types of surf break:

 i)             beach break

 ii)            headland or point break

 iii)           river or estuary mouth bar

 iv)           reef or ledge break

 There are no clear boundaries between the different types and sometimes breaks fall under more than one category.

 Threats to surf breaks

 Surf breaks form part of an ever evolving coastal environment, and are vulnerable to changes (both natural and human induced) in the processes that form them. As population and coastal development has increased, there have been increased pressures on the coastal environment, and interaction with, or modification of natural process which create surf breaks. 


Coastal development has resulted / can result in new structures extending into the coastal waters, and a requirement for protection of land based infrastructure from coastal processes.    Interaction with and modification of coastal processes by structures can affect wave quality at surf breaks.  This may be through:

-       ‘dampening’ or blocking swell,

-       interrupting or modifying sediment transport,

-       altering bathymetry, or

-       causing wave reflection or refraction. 

 Structures which may result in the above effects can include:

-       seawalls or shoreline armouring,

-       groynes,

-       breakwaters,

-       jetties,

-       marinas,

-       offshore structures within swell corridors such as marine farms. 

 While there are examples of where engineering works have had a positive effect on wave quality (both by accident and in less frequent cases intentionally), more often the effects on surf breaks are negative.

Removal and disturbance of seabed material

 Wave quality at surf breaks is directly dependent upon seabed bathymetry. Direct alteration of bathymetry within or close to surf breaks can affect wave quality. This can include:

 -       dredging to create or maintain navigation channels,

-       sea bed mining or extraction,

-       deposition of dredge spoil or other material. 

These activities may remove sediment directly from within the footprint of a surf break, or remove sediment which would otherwise be supplied to a surf break.

Disposal of dredge spoil in close proximity to a surf break can also create ‘wave focusing’ effects.  This has the potential to either enhance, or adversely affect surf break wave quality.

Effects on amenity values

 Surf breaks can also be adversely affected by activities on the adjacent land, such as:

 -       developments adversely affecting access to or amenity values of a break,

-       discharge of contaminants,

-       erosion of sediment resulting in poor water quality. 

Landward development can result in increased discharge of contaminants to coastal waters which, if not appropriately controlled, can affect amenity values at surf breaks.

Increased landward development can also adversely affect the ‘natural environment’ experience which can otherwise contribute to the amenity values provided by a surf break.  

  1. Scarfe (2008) states that there is only: “one surfing break every 39km to 58km. Many of these surfing breaks are only surfable a few days per month or year when the tide, wind and wave conditions are suitable” 



  4. Auckland Regional Council, March 2010. Draft Auckland Regional Policy Statement, Background Report – Surf Breaks, Prepared by Kath Coombes and Brad Scarfe, Environmental Policy and Planning.

  5. Peryman, P. B. (2011b). Bay of Plenty Surf Break Study: An identification of significant surf breaks and development of associated evaluation criteria in the Bay of Plenty region.  A student/technical report prepared by Bailey Peryman, with assistance from Bay of Plenty Regional Council.  April 2011.


Last updated at 10:51AM on November 17, 2017