Visitors to the Bay of Islands this week were handed leaflets on the wharf at Paihia urging them not to take the famed trip to the Hole in the Rock at Motu Kokako, Piercy Island. The Motu Kokako Ahu Whenua Trust complains that the boat operators are not telling tourists the correct history of the island and its significance to Ngapuhi. The trust also wants a payment for the attraction.
If the three companies running boats through the Hole in the Rock do not enter negotiations, the trust says, it will block the entrance in some way. "Our mana is being trampled on by these operators," said chairman Rau Hoskins.
The idea that anyone can claim ownership of a natural waterway is foreign to most people in New Zealand and to its law. But it is not foreign to Maori custom, as was evident in the foreshore and seabed claim and the challenge to the sale of hydro-power companies. It is an issue the country needs to resolve once and for all.
Courts alone cannot resolve it. So long as Maori feel a waterway is rightfully theirs, there will be occasions when claims will be accepted and payments made simply because it is cheaper than taking the issue to court. That appears to have happened at the Hole in the Rock.
When Fullers had the attraction to itself, it agreed to pay a portion of each fare to the trust. When competition arrived, Fullers made common cause with the trust and took a rival operator to court on a claim of trespass. The case failed, the High Court ruling that access to open sea could not be impeded under maritime law. Fullers then stopped paying the trust.
But it should never have started paying. It should have gone to the court, if need be, as soon as a charge was demanded. An important principle at stake. Under British law, property rights stop at the tide. Parliament's resolution of the foreshore and seabed issue has upheld that principle, declaring the tidal zone to be public domain where customary rights can be asserted but no group has exclusive use.
The Hole in the Rock is obviously an unusual piece of public domain. The rock is owned by the Motu Kokako trust. Possibly it would be within its rights as landowner to bolt a barricade to the rock on each side. But what a sorry sight that would be - an insult to a beautiful place and a poor reflection on its owners.
Rather than seeking rent from the resource, they could be running tours themselves. If none of the existing operators are giving visitors the island's authentic story in the trust's view, the trust has a golden opportunity. Not all tourists want an indigenous cultural experience but many do. The trust could obtain a suitable vessel and offer a trip clearly different from its competitors.
Quite likely it would find itself having an influence on the other tours. When they saw how the trust approached the attraction, they would probably modify their own. Competition tends to conform with the best product.
The trust says its mana is being trampled on by trips that do not pay a token fee. Its mana will truly suffer if it blocks the hole, giving visitors a different spectacle.
Debate on this article is now closed.