An outspoken scientist has likened Hawke's Bay foreshore and seabed claims to "an echo of apartheid South Africa" in front of a Napier audience.

Council of Outdoor Recreation of New Zealand secretary Hugh Barr last night spoke to about 100 people at the Napier Sailing Club in Ahuriri, saying at the public meeting that marine and coastal area claims in the Bay were a threat to public access.

Three claims were "currently in secret negotiation with [Attorney-General of New Zealand] Chris Finlayson" for areas of Bay coastline, Dr Barr said.

The Marine and Coastal Area Act had allowed for 40 claims for privatisation of areas of foreshore and seabed for tribal interests throughout New Zealand.

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He said the claims would create "two classes of citizens, the privileged coastal chiefs and the rest of us, including people of Maori descent who don't belong to that tribe - second-class citizens".

"This is an echo of apartheid South Africa."

But Rongomaiwahine applicant Pauline Tangiora, whose claim encompasses the Mahia Peninsula, said at the meeting the act guaranteed free public access, rights of navigation and rights of fishing.

"We don't stop recreational fishing anywhere on our coastline."

She was seeking to restrict access only to specific wahi tapu sites such as burial grounds.

Dr Barr stood for the New Zealand First party in the Wellington electorate of Ohariu in the 2011 general election. He was unsuccessful.