All photos By Delainey LaHood-Burns unless otherwise noted |Video by Delainey LaHood-Burns and Sophia Paffenroth
“When you’re riding the wave, it all seems to go away and you’re just really connected with the ocean and the nature and the elements.”
Since he was a teenager, Chris Borgatti has spent every winter surfing the frigid waters off New England’s rugged coastline, where the best time to catch waves is late September through early spring. He’s used to paddling through snow, wind, rain, and even chunks of ice to pursue his favorite sport. But over the decades, he’s also found himself swimming past plastic trash and other waste.
“Plastic is something that you just constantly encounter in the ocean,” Borgatti said. “You know, after every storm, when there’s a lot of rain, for instance. A lot of our rivers are bringing in a majority of the plastic into the ocean and that stuff washes up on the beach.”
For the past 20 years, Borgatti has worked on this issue as a volunteer with the Surfrider Foundation, an organization that was founded by surfers in the 1980s and works to protect coastal areas across the US. He’s currently the chair of the Massachusetts Chapter of Surfrider, which organizes monthly beach clean-ups and other conservation work.
Borgatti is just one of many surfers and water recreationists in the New England area who has been watching local beaches and waterways jeopardized over the years by pollution, climate change, overuse, and other threats. He believes surfers share a unique understanding of what’s happening because they’re immersed in the environment, often year-round.
“Unless you are in the water as a surfer or a swimmer or a fisherman and you sort of see the day-to-day changes,” he said, “You might not be aware of what’s happening out there … So I think recreational ocean enthusiasts play a really important role in communicating our experiences to people who are in decision-making positions.”
On top of witnessing trash, erosion, sea-level rise, and water quality issues firsthand, Nancy Downes, a local surfer and field campaign manager for Oceana, said water recreationists have a duty to care for the ocean, especially as more beach-goers flock to the water each year and shorelines continue to shrink.
“The impacts are coming from us and our use of it and our joy of it,” Downes said. “So it’s like a responsibility to protect this, so that we can enjoy it and that future generations can enjoy it as well.”
In addition to her work with Oceana, Downes was a former regional manager for the Surfrider Foundation in Southern California. Now based in Massachusetts, she said surfing was the catalyst for her now decades-long career in ocean conservation.
“Surfing came first, and chasing that sort of addiction and chasing that joy,” added Downes, who still vividly remembers catching her first wave on a surfboard. “When you’re riding the wave, it all seems to go away and you’re just really connected with the ocean and the nature and the elements,” Downes said. “And it doesn’t matter if it’s freezing, you’re just having so much fun.”
For Gloucester surfers Dominic Olivo and Anneliese Brosch, keeping local beaches pristine goes beyond environmental conservation—it’s tied to their livelihood. Olivo and Brosch run Cape Ann SUP & Surf, a surf and paddleboard business that operates four locations around Essex and Gloucester. When the company started, the downtown beach where they rented out boards was frequently littered with trash, needles, and broken glass.
Out of necessity, Cape Ann SUP & Surf started organizing a beach clean-up every spring to make the area safer and more suitable for clients. Over the past 13 years, this effort turned into an annual event called The Great Gloucester Clean Up, which takes place around every Earth Day. Today, it usually involves several businesses and organizations, as well as many volunteers who are able to clean five or six different beaches around the city. Olivo said environmental work like this is at the core of Cape Ann SUP & Surf.
“It’s a main goal of the company to be environmentally friendly, and it’s part of everything we do,” Olivo said. “ … It’s just a natural fit that if we’re going to make a living off this great sport, we need to help bring to the forefront that, Hey, we gotta keep it clean at the same time.”
In addition to running surf and paddleboard clinics, Olivo and Brosch have a shop in Essex where they sell eco-friendly surfboards and other retail. They focus on products that are sustainable, partnering with environmentally-conscious manufacturers and local vendors. According to Brosch, protecting the ocean is closely linked to the choices consumers and companies make.
“How is it manufactured? Where was it manufactured? How do you get it here? How long does it last?” Brosch said. “Is it something that’s meant to last? … You have to think beyond just the immediate trash that you see to the bigger picture of who you’re supporting and why you’re supporting them.”
Brian Ferrazzani, a local surfer and core volunteer for the Surfrider Foundation’s Massachusetts Chapter, thinks about the difference that businesses can make by prioritizing sustainability every time he cleans a beach. He’s spent hours picking up straws, cups, and containers stamped with the familiar logos of McDonald’s, Dunkin’ Donuts, and other corporations that distribute single-use plastic packaging.
“My first Surfrider meeting, I definitely showed up with a plastic coffee cup,” Ferrazzani said. “Now I’m really trying to reduce my single-use plastic consumption and also changing the way I shop. Trying to not use as much single-use plastic, trying to buy brands that are locally made. Because everything we purchase and consume comes at a cost to the environment.”
While he’s careful about his purchasing choices, Ferrazzani is even more critical of the companies that produce and distribute throw-away plastic products, disseminating vast amounts of trash that take decades to degrade, if at all.
“Something that our chapter, and Surfrider in general, is working on is extended producer responsibility. Right now there’s a lot of responsibility on individuals to be recycling and making sustainable choices,” Ferrazani said. “But at what point do we hold corporations accountable for the things that they’re producing?”
After every beach clean-up, the Surfrider Foundation logs data on the type of trash that volunteers collect. Plastic food wrappers, straws, cups, and bottles are some of the most common litter they find on beaches. That’s no surprise, since researchers have found that plastic takeout trash dominates marine litter across global ocean environments.
Through her work with Oceana, Downes is a proponent of stopping single-use plastic at the source, noting that there are now more plastic particles in the ocean than plankton. The problem, she said, is only projected to worsen.
“Plastic production is expected to triple by 2050,” Downes said. “So we can’t recycle our way out of this problem. Picking up trash is great, but that’s not going to stop the flow of plastic from coming into our economy. So really having strong policies at the federal and global level to stop the production of these single-use, unnecessary plastics is critical.”
While there are major steps that need to be taken by governments and corporations, Brosch believes that individuals still hold a lot of power when it comes to tackling the ocean conservation crisis. From investing in products that are made responsibly to choosing restaurants that don’t use plastic takeout ware, she said the daily choices we make can go a long way.
“I think every decision that people make on a daily basis can change that … Little things like that can make a big difference if you add them up over the course of your lifetime,” Brosch said.
Ferrazzani said one step people can take is to join one of the beach clean-ups that the Massachusetts Surfrider Foundation organizes each month, adding that volunteers don’t need to be surfers to participate.
“Our chapter of Surfrider Foundation is not all surfers, but a lot of ocean recreators of all different types, whether they’re surfers or paddleboarders, kayakers, divers, or even folks who just like to come to the beach and walk or sit,” Ferrazani said. “I think the common thread is it becomes worth protecting because it’s so important to you.”
This resonates with Borgatti, whose life has centered around the ocean ever since he was a teenager, sneaking away every weekend to surf.
“The ocean continues to shape me. It sustains me in so many different ways. It gives me peace of mind. I find tranquility when I’m out,” Borgatti said. “At the end of the road, what will the ocean have given me? It’s not one thing. It’s nearly everything.”