Stephen and Maureen Doy got a shock when they checked out their favourite whitebait possie in readiness for the opening of the season later this month.
There was a new sign banning the New Plymouth couple from freedom camping at the Awakino River in Waikato, just north of Taranaki.
The Doys have been staying in their campervan for short spells at the river - along with the nearby Mokau River, one of the North Island's prime whitebaiting spots - every whitebait season for the past 20 years.
Now the west coast rivers have new signs from Waitomo District Council stating camping on council land is illegal. The daily fine is $175.
The council says freedom camping has always been against its bylaws, but complaints about the practice at Awakino and Mokau arose for the first time last season.
NZ Motor Caravan Association CEO Bruce Lochore heard about the ban when he visited Taranaki a few days ago to talk to New Plymouth District Council about the council achieving "motor home friendly" status with the association.
He said the association is now in discussions with Waitomo about the ban and wants the council to allow association members to freedom camp in places like Awakino for up to a fortnight.
The Tainui Whitebaiters Association, whose members frequent the two rivers, says the problem appears to have arisen because at least one whitebaiter camped out for the entire season, which this year runs from August 15 to November 30 in the North Island.
"Nobody minds people staying two or three days at a time, but staying for long periods is not on," said association secretary Molly George, of New Plymouth. "People, including the campgrounds, were getting up in arms about it."
Waitomo District Council spokeswoman Kelly Marriott said the council received a small number of complaints about freedom camping over the past two years.
"Our informal conversations indicate that freedom camping can be a problem at Awakino/Mokau area during the whitebait season," she said. A nuisance was caused when campers stayed for extended periods and left behind rubbish and waste.
Camping on council land was regulated by the council's public places bylaw, which was adopted in 2009 and reviewed in 2014. It bans camping outside camp grounds.
The council decided last November to monitor the situation for 12 months, before considering whether to develop a freedom camping bylaw.
As an interim measure, signs were posted at Kiritehere, Waikawau, Marokopa, Awakino and Mokau in an effort to increase public awareness and to control the activity, she said.
"We feel that further discussion with our local community and campers is required to ensure our position is correct."
She confirmed the council was also working with the NZ Motor Caravan Association to find ways that worked for people who wanted to freedom camp responsibly.
The Tainui Wetere Domain in Mokau has a dump facility for motorhomes available for a fee. Seaview Holiday Park in Mokau is a camping ground with a dump station and access to power.
She asked people with a view on freedom camping to contact the council on email@example.com.
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