Aberystwyth's surfers ride against the tide of development

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Surfing in Wales was never a soft option. The hardy Welsh breed of surfer has always had to contend with chilly waters, pollution, fog and rain, occasional misguided sharks, and a dearth of palm trees and sultry breezes.

Surfing in Wales was never a soft option. The hardy Welsh breed of surfer has always had to contend with chilly waters, pollution, fog and rain, occasional misguided sharks, and a dearth of palm trees and sultry breezes.

Now they have to tangle with giant underwater JCBs re-landscaping their favourite break. A developer's plans to dredge out the harbour at Aberystwyth, and expand the marina, dumping the sludge on top of the reef, has run into stiff opposition from the University of Wales Aberystwyth surf club.

The men in baggy shorts (and extremely thick wetsuits) have become guardians of the environment and are fighting sailors, developers, and Aberystwyth Council over the future of their reef.

The classic surf break the world over is a delicately poised ecosystem, involving the collaboration of long-distance swells, precise underwater contours, and men (and women) on boards riding the waves. In Aberystwyth, the "Harbour-Trap" reef, near the entrance to the marina, is seen by surfers as indispensable to their quest for, if not the perfect wave, one of the best that Britain has to offer. But it is also seen by developers as a convenient place to park all the unwanted material from the harbour mouth. Resculpted by tons of waste matter, the reef may no longer generate as many well-shaped waves.

The irony is that the initial dredging operation that created the marina actually enhanced surfing in Aberystwyth harbour in the first place. But surfers are anxious not to lose what they have gained.

According to James Corder, a second-year history student at Aberystwyth, member of the surfing club, and author of an online petition against the development (www.petitiononline.com/abersurf): "In the quest to save money they [the developers] are going to destroy our beloved break and harm marine life. So with the wish to get larger boats into the marina and make a quick buck, the local environment must suffer."

The surfers are not dead set against an expansion of the marina, which opened six years ago, but they argue that the developers should make use of a landfill site for the sludge. They point out that for most of the past century, the harbour was used for shipping the end-product from the local lead mines and that the seabed is polluted with heavy metals and other contaminants. Removing all this toxic matter and depositing it on the reef would probably be detrimental to dolphins, birds, and other marine life – not just surfers. Unfortunately, it is cheaper to shift a lot of gunge from one part of the seabed to another rather than hauling it all out and trucking it away.

The marina operator, IMP Developments, is planning to almost double the number of berths in the harbour, from 105 to 185, "to make it [the marina] more viable and to increase the benefits for shops, restaurants and other local businesses." On its side, IMP is already complaining about the level of costs imposed by environmental factors. Although the dredging operation itself is estimated to cost only £10,000, IMP has been asked to stump up another £68,000 for "consultation and research" before they can even set shovel on sludge.

The Countryside Council for Wales, the Environment Agency and Defra have put in an estimate for that amount after initial environmental objections were raised to the dredging proposal. IMP director Prys Edwards argues the additional costs are out of all proportion to the scale of the operation. "They appear to be so excessive we cannot afford to carry out the advance consultation and research. How can a very small marina ever afford such costs, for such a small dredging operation?" Edwards says that marina could be threatened with closure if costs rise too much.

Aberystwyth Council has not yet given final approval to the project. One councillor, Peredur Eklund, expressed a degree of scepticism about the economic advantages of the marina, much trumpeted by the operators. "There are strong feelings about this in Aberystwyth," he said. 'We need to ask the scrutiny committee how many jobs have actually been created by the marina development.' The council agreed to come up with a further report providing updated statistics on the effect of the harbour upon the local economy.

The SAS (Surfers Against Sewage) environmental group is planning to take up the campaign and is set to drop in on Aberystwyth with the 1998 world surfing champion.

But local surfers, having been testing water quality at close quarters and being bounced around on the reef, feel that they have already done enough in the way of basic research.