Water makes up roughly 70% of the total surface area of planet earth, and 98% of that water is found in our oceans. We have all heard about pollution, oil spills, environmental contamination from industry waste, and the slew of other tragedies that harm the preservation and cleanliness of the earth’s waters. Humans have indeed done a good bit of damage to marine and coastal environments. Yet we love our oceans— they fill us with the soothing and peaceful soundtrack of waves crashing and receding, a sense of awe at the largeness of life; the opportunity to bath, swim, boat, and surf; and an evident reminder of the beauty found in nature. Our oceans are the very stitches that knit together all the continents on this planet. “The Surfrider Foundation is a non-profit environmental organization dedicated to the protection and enjoyment of the world’s oceans, waves and beaches for all people, through conservation, activism, research and education,” says the group’s website. Props to Surfrider for working on this necessary mission— there is just no denying the importance of clean, protected waters.

Jen Prince is the head of the Northwest Straits chapter of Surfrider, the Bellingham branch of the three chapters in Washington. Prince, who received a biology degree from Western in 2001 and is now back to get a teaching certificate, has been working in this position for a little over a year, and oversees all the different programs Surfrider spearheads. “I care about clean water,” said Prince. Put most bluntly, that is the driving force behind the many awesome projects of the Surfrider Foundation.

The Northwest Straits chapter of Surfrider started as a club through the AS at Western. A few years ago the chapter moved off campus, but Prince spoke of the involvement Western has demonstrated in Surfrider stating, “Students are really active and traditionally have provided a huge volunteer base.”

Surfers can meet through Surfrider, but you do not need to surf to join or volunteer your time. “We’re here to work on environmental issues in Bellingham, mostly water quality. It’s not just for surfers. We are trying to outreach into different water sport communities. Our program is about environmental activism. As recreationalists we are aware that our actions affect the ecosystem. We aren’t a surfing organization; we don’t take people on surf trips. We focus on environmental activism.”
The Northwest Straits chapter is currently working on three major projects. The first is the Beach Cleanup Project, which does both local and Washington coastal cleanups.

The second is the Snowrider project, an educational outreach program designed to create awareness among persons practicing winter mountain sports of their effects on the coastal environment.

The third project, the Blue Water Task Force, is a water quality and monitoring project that tests for enterococcus— a cancer causing bacteria released into the environment through fecal matter. There have been universally elevated levels of this bacterium at all the beaches that Surfrider monitors. By collecting water samples from beaches and analyzing them in their lab, they hope to discover the source of this increase.

Though there are many groups monitoring the impact of industry on the waterfront, and testing for pollutant metals in the Bellingham Bay, Surfrider is the only organization testing for enterococcus. As such, they have received grants from Washington state and the science education program at Western to pursue this research, and they are currently in the process of compiling their data to create an extensive research report on the levels and impact of enterococcus on local waterfront and human health.

Surfrider’s member base in Bellingham has grown over recent years, which Prince attributes to the group’s commitment to local issues. “Focusing on issues in Bellingham Bay, in our bay, attracts locals to become involved. [Surfrider] is really citizen oriented; it’s grassroots based.”

There are tons of ways to get involved. A volunteer can do any number of things, from organizing a beach clean-up to graphic design for events and flyers. There is policy related involvement such as going to community meetings on behalf of Surfrider, tabling for events, database management and website design, writing letters and grants, and the hands-on option of taking water quality samples. “This is a way that the common citizen can be involved in scientific monitoring,” said Prince, and she noted that the best way to get involved is to “come to one of our meetings and see what our programs are about.”

Surfrider meets the 4th Monday of every month at 6:30 p.m. at Fantasia’s. At the upcoming October meeting there will be a guest speaker, Wendy Steffensen, who works for Resources of Whatcom County as the Bellingham Baykeeper. Prince says the meeting with Steffensen will include an informal talk and a question and answer session.

“Surfrider is a way of applying my ideas about the environment. It’s a way to get involved. It’s a way to stop talking about it and do something, to actively participate in the decisions. We’re doing this water quality research and communicating to groups in the community about our results. Through that, policy makers and citizens are aware that we’re concerned about the health of our ecosystem,” said Prince.

For more information or to volunteer, contact Jen Prince at NWS@Surfrider.org, or call 303-0851.