Interview With Hugo Tagholm, from Surfers Against Sewage
23rd October 2015
Hugo Tagholm is CEO, of Surfers Against Sewage, a grassroots environmental charity that is celebrating 25 years of campaigning this year.
Firstly, can you tell us briefly a bit about Surfers Against Sewage, how it began, what the aims of the charity are etc?
Surfers Against Sewage was started some 25 years ago, in May 1990, by a group of passionate, Cornish surfers in the north coast villages of St Agnes and Porthtowan.
These were surfers with a strong and direct motivation to tackle the pollution they were experiencing first hand whilst surfing. Sewage pollution was a chronic issue at the time, and UK surfers were at the frontline.
As the cover of the first-ever issue of SAS membership magazine, Pipeline, stated, SAS was set up as a single-issue campaign group to stop ‘marine sewage disposal’.
The first issue of Pipeline also highlighted the most likely ‘key to success’ for the campaigns of the time – publicity stunts! The visibility of the sewage issue at the time and the direct impacts on a vocal, media-friendly minority, was a potent cocktail to make headlines with an irrefutable campaign argument.
But the tide had really started to turn on the need to drastically improve bathing water quality with the privatisation of English water companies in 1989. This change, coupled with two key pieces of European legislation, gave a framework for change, including new obligations and timescales to clean up our waterways and beaches. These were the EU Bathing Water Directive and the Urban Waste Water Treatment Directive – 1991. This was the real game-changer.
Surfers Against Sewage acted as a very effective catalyst for change, pressing on these pieces of legislation, collating health evidence and connecting previously disparate groups of surfers into what became one of the best-recognised environmental campaign movements of the 1990s.
This year is SAS’s 25th anniversary, an auspicious year in which we can celebrate many successes along the way but more importantly look at the decisions we can make today and tomorrow to help safeguard our oceans, waves and beaches for the future.
What is Surfers Against Sewage currently focussed on?
Today, Surfers Against Sewage is a broad environmental charity and highly effective campaigning team that protects waves, oceans and beaches for all to enjoy safely and sustainably. SAS projects target coastal environmental issues including marine litter, sewage pollution, climate change, toxic chemicals, shipping, industry and coastal development.
We aim to create measurable improvements in the state of our coastline through positive change in public behaviour, government policy and industry practices.
Our work takes a bottom up and a top down approach – engaging, inspiring and mobilising communities at a grassroots level nationwide but also influencing industry practices and calling for improvements in government policy where necessary.
We mobilse around 15,000 community activists and volunteers every year - through beach cleans and campaign demos. We help creating legislation - such as the charge on single use bags - #BreakTheBagHabit - which is a proven mechanism to protect the environment. We have our own All Party Parliamentary Group, which was the result of the biggest ever enviro-surf petition of 55,000 signatures, which we delivered to 10 Downing Street in 2013. So we are using every tactic to create positive change for our coastline and protect waves, oceans and beaches for the future!
Aside from marine litter, what else can be found in sea water around the coast of Britain? Do many surfers get ill from ingesting sea water?
Yes, with a network of over 30,000 combined sewer overflows discharging untreated human sewage into our rivers, beaches and coastline, sewage pollution is still one of our number 1 issues. This last bathing season (May - September) we recorded over 3,500 separate sewage pollution incidents along the coastline at many of the countries favourite beaches and surf spots.
What impact does marine litter have on wildlife?
The impacts of marine litter are huge and getting worse unfortunately!
The vast majority of marine litter is plastic, which never truly breaks down. Experts suggest plastic left in the environment will be with us in some microscopic form many thousands of years.
When in the sea, plastics can also adsorb toxic chemicals, becoming increasingly harmful over time, and often entering the food chain when mistaken for food items by fish, seabirds, marine mammals and other organisms. Over 100,000 marine mammals and over 1 million seabirds die every year from ingestion of and entanglement in marine litter.
Plastic debris can be found littering coastlines all across the world’s oceans, even on the most far-flung and inaccessible of beaches. Plastic is not biodegradable and will degrade slower in the marine environment than on land. A normal plastic bottle may persist for more than 450 years if left on a beach.
Do you think the seas around the British Isles have improved or worsened in the last decade and in what way are they better or worse?
Whilst the European legislation of the 1990’s and the hard work of many campaign groups of the last three decades has created some fantastic improvements in the state of the UK’s beaches and water quality, there is much more complicated work and campaigning still to do.
The task has never been more important with the rampant environmental vandalism taking place: 30,000 combined sewer overflows polluting our coastlines and waterways; Climate change accelerating at alarming rates and impacting our seas through ocean acidification, ocean warming and sea level rises and marine litter at the highest level ever. This could be seen as wholesale destruction of our marine environments. The environment is never saved, it’s always being saved!
What is Surfers Against Sewage proudest achievement?
Becoming one of the biggest environmental voices of any sport in the world.
Is there similar surf groups campaigning for the environment in other countries, if so do you work with them, and what would be your advice for any surfers in countries with no SAS type charity but would like to work to improve the marine environment?
Yes, Surfrider Foundation and Save the Waves in the USA. Salvem O Surf in Portugal. Surfrider Europe on mainland Europe. Wildcoast in Mexico and many others. We collaborate with them all and you can check out our latest efforts at www.globalwaveconference.org - the biggest event ever bringing together the world’s enviro-surf community.
How can people help Surfers Against Sewage?
If you had to recommend one thing to world leaders to improve the Oceans what would it be?
I’ll suggest two. Create more marine protected areas. Limit carbon emissions and move to a renewable energy future - COP21 in Paris this year is a vital moment to act.
Whilst surfing or at the beach what has been your most memorable wildlife or nature experience?
A basking shark swimming underneath me at my favourite spot Droskyn in Cornwall!
More info at www.sas.org.uk
Follow Hugo on Twitter HERE
1. Early image of SAS campaigning.
2. SAS water quality campaign image.
3. Hugo Tagholm, 2nd left in Parliament with colleagues. (L-R Tom Curren, Hugo Tagholm, Greg Long, Ramon Navarro)
4. Tideline of Trash, Perran Sands, Cornwall © Greg MartinSAS
5. 2009 SAS Protect Our Waves Launch
6. Firewire Surfboards event.