By Patrick Gower
A group of Maori are threatening to block access to an iconic Northland surf spot.
Shipwreck Bay, at the foot of 90 Mile Beach, could be off-limits - unless commercial operators, like tourism companies, begin paying them to use it.
The dispute is seen as a forerunner to other cases, with Maori claiming “customary title” under the Government’s seabed and foreshore legislation.
Shipwreck Bay is one of New Zealand’s finest beaches, and while Patau Tepania of the Te Kohanga Trust is keeping the gate open – that could all be about to change.
“The fact is, people are trespassing,” he says.
Mr Tepania says his people aren’t sick of the public – just those who use the beach to make money.
“How would people like it if businesses were crossing over their front drive or front lawn,” he says.
“They wouldn’t like it at all.”
Grant Hall’s bike tours have been crossing Shipwreck Bay for a decade, even taking wealthy tourists like Bill Gates.
But now, until Mr Hall’s tours pay a fee of around $4000 per year, they’re blocked.
“I’m really having to wonder what public access means,” Mr Hall says.
“It’s obviously got different connotations for commercial users.”
That access is through Maori-owned land, which gives them control. Control that will extend onto the beach and up to 20km out to sea if they get “customary title” under the Government’s new foreshore law.
Mr Tepania says that is a given.
“We know we’ve got customary title to this beach,” he says.
Similar claims are expected all around the coastline and could lead to similar disputes.
“What we’ll see is the owners, once they’ve got customary title, is they’ll run it in a manner similar to a marina,” says Labour MP Shane Jones.
“You don’t have open access to a marina, you’ve got to pay a fee to the proprietors.”
“In relation to customary title they have certain rights,” says Treaty Negotiations Minister Chris Finlayson.
“Whether or not that extends to charging fees remains to be seen.”
Mr Tepania says they only want commercial users to pay – but everyone could lose out if they don’t.
“If worse comes to worse, we’re going to put a gate up on the road,” he says.
“That’s it. Full stop. It’s gonna stop, until people actually start listening and understand that this is private land.”
This case is just about one beach, but the Government could end up handing customary title to Maori for entire stretches of coastline.
While the Government says public access is guaranteed, it looks as if some of the rules on the ground will start to change.