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Credo for today’s surfers: outreach and activism

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By Lisa Capone

A MONTH PAST Christmas, it was a slow morning at Brickhouse Boards in Marblehead, Massachusetts. Thin beams of January sunlight streamed through a storefront window, where a parade of snowboards beckoned passersby in the wake of a storm that dumped a half-foot of snow the day before. With temperatures just inching above freezing and the sidewalk outside Jamie Hosker’s board shop slick with ice, most people in this seaside town had stowed their beach towels months ago. But not Hosker. On this quintessential mid-winter day, his thoughts rested on sand and surf. “During the winter, it’s a great place to be a surfer,” said the 33-year-old Nahant, Massachusetts native who first took up a surfboard when he was 12. “This is the best season around here. On a snowy winter’s day, I’m in the water four to six hours.”

It’s not surprising that someone who grew up amid the waves of Massachusetts’s North Shore got hooked on surfing early. What comes as a revelation, though - at least to someone outside surfing circles - is the way Hosker talks about his passion. No “knarly waves” or “dude” references from this attorney-turned-shopkeeper. Instead, Hosker talks earnestly about issues he says are near and dear to his and every surfer’s heart: water quality, beach access and political activism on behalf of the ocean.

“You no longer can pigeonhole a surfer. It’s no longer a Spicoli,” he says, referring to the perpetually stoned, bleached out surfer boy played by Sean Penn in the film, “Fast Times at Ridgemont High.”

On the contrary, he says, being a sincere and active environmentalist is the rule among surfers these days.

“I think more than any other sport, surfing creates environmental activists,” Hosker said. “You are embedded in the environment you are playing in. You swallow it, it’s in your ears, you’re above it, you’re below it.”

Clean cut and casual in a navy blue sweatshirt and jeans, Hosker is far from the Jeff Spicoli stereotype. An alumnus of the University of Vermont, where he majored in history with a minor in environmental studies, Hosker went on to law school and worked for the attorney general in Denver, Colorado before moving back East. Now residing in East Greenwich, Rhode Island, where his wife works as a veterinarian, Hosker commutes to the Marblehead store he runs with co-owner Mark Driscoll.

When he’s not working or surfing, Hosker makes good on his environmentalist rhetoric, heading up the Massachusetts North Shore affiliate of the Surfrider Foundation, a nationwide surfers’ group comprising more than 50,000 members dedicated to environmental protection. Hosker said he was drawn to Surfrider after experiencing firsthand the health effects of a dirty ocean environment - numerous ear infections he suffered as a teenager as a result of then-poor water quality along the Massachusetts shore. The Surfrider Foundation boasts 63 chapters in the United States and Puerto Rico, and international affiliates in Japan, Australia, Europe and Brazil. Founded in 1984, the California-based organization’s 2005 accomplishments included more than 600 beach cleanups, 8,000 coastal water quality tests, and 200 community outreach campaigns around the country. Surfrider won the 2005 National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Walter B. Jones Award for Non-Governmental Organization of the Year, an award that recognizes outstanding contributions toward helping to protect coastal and ocean resources while balancing human needs.

In the Gulf of Maine, Surfrider has chapters in Massachusetts (including regional sub-groups on the North Shore, Boston and Cape Cod), and a Northern New England Chapter in Maine. Hosker said linking up with Surfrider was a natural step after “growing up surfing in the Boston area during the bad times.” Hosker’s favorite haunts were in the thick of “bad times” when he paddled out for his first waves in the mid-1980s.

“It was such an issue when we were growing up. Half of what went down the toilet was on my beach,” he said, adding that this made his conversion to environmentalism “pretty instant.” More than two decades and a court-ordered cleanup of Boston Harbor later, the region’s beaches still aren’t pristine, but they’re greatly improved.

“It’s been gratifying to see sea life come back,” Hosker said. “We now surf around seals. That never happened.”

By participating in Surfrider’s Blue Water Task Force, Hosker hopes to keep Massachusetts beaches cleaner by alerting surfers, swimmers and government officials about areas where water quality is lacking. The national effort relies on local chapter volunteers to take water quality samples at assigned beaches each week. After recruiting volunteers for the project last winter, Hosker hopes to have it up and running along the Massachusetts North Shore this spring. According to Matt McClain, director of marketing and communications at Surfrider’s San Clemente, California headquarters, the program trains volunteers to test for levels of three bacterial pathogens: total coliform, fecal coliform and enterococus. The goal is to post each week’s water quality results on the chapter Web site, Hosker said. Surfrider’s Northern New England Chapter is also involved in the project. “The point is to get people active in demanding a better environment,” Hosker said.

In addition to monitoring water quality, Northeast Surfrider members weigh in on legislative and regulatory issues affecting the coast. The Massachusetts Chapter recently opposed a proposed 99-year lease of Outer Brewster Island, part of the Boston Harbor Island National Park, for use as a liquefied natural gas terminal.

In keeping with Surfrider Foundation’s mission to educate children about coastal conservation, Hosker’s affiliate and Big Brothers and Big Sisters of Massachusetts Bay co-sponsored a one-day workshop last August that used surfing to introduce about 25 inner-city kids to the ocean and marine conservation. Besides enjoying the waves, children learned there’s a link between what goes down the drain and what ends up at local beaches.

“There’s no better way to make an environmental activist than to teach a kid how to surf,” he said. “I don’t know a surfer who doesn’t become environmental. You almost can’t do it. I think it happens naturally.”

Lisa Capone is a Massachusetts freelance writer, specializing in environmental issues.

© 2006 The Gulf of Maine Times