New in PERC Reports: Property Rights to Surf Breaks

by Daniel K. Benjamin

In open-access settings, high quality resources are lucrative; yet keeping out potential entrants may be extremely costly. This combination—valuable resources in the presence of high exclusion costs—has played a pivotal role in creating the “race to fish” and a consequent destruction of many of the world’s fisheries. Yet private interests have protected some fisheries and other open-access resources that are not shielded by formal, government-enforced property rights. There is thus growing interest in the conditions under which private, or informal, protection of such resources is possible. Recent research by Daniel Kaffine (2009) has uncovered an unlikely venue for understanding such private solutions—surfing in California.

Areas along the coast known as “surf breaks” are locations where waves are particularly conducive to high quality surfing. California law defines the coast as open access up to the high-tide mark. This makes surf breaks a classic, open-access resource, subject to overexploitation due to excessive entry by individuals seeking to enjoy the resource. Yet Kaffine finds that long-time regular surfers, known as “locals” (or surf gangs), routinely enforce informal property rights to the surf breaks, a practice known as localism. Their creation and enforcement of informal property rights dramatically reduces congestion from “nonlocals,” thereby preserving the quality of the surf breaks.

The finite number of waves per hour at potential surfing locations implies that surf breaks are congestible resources whose value can be degraded by too many people trying to surf, but both localism and etiquette have emerged to deal with congestion. Etiquette helps users decide who gets to ride which wave at a site, thus reducing collisions and enhancing the experience for all users. Localism, enforced by unpleasant verbal assaults, and sometimes physical hostility, serves as a method for rationing who gets to surf where.

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