Labour MP Russell Fairbrother says a slip of the tongue has resulted in him being accused of legitimising ransom payments after a beloved Napier icon was stolen.

Mr Fairbrother has come under attack by the National Party for his comments after the Pania of the Reef statue, an attraction on Napier's waterfront for more than 50 years, was stolen early on Thursday.

Police had no firm leads in the search for the statue yesterday.

The theft had created an incredible amount of community feeling ranging from astonishment to disgust and anger, said the Napier City Council officer who watches over the statue, Tony Billing.

"People have been coming along there and bursting into tears," he said.

After the theft was reported, Mr Fairbrother was quoted as saying he would speak to police and Napier Mayor Barbara Arnott about raising money for a ransom fund to secure the statue's return.

But yesterday he said he may have made a mistake, and meant to say money could be raised for a reward for information.

National law and order spokesman Simon Power said Mr Fairbrother knew exactly what he was saying in the first case and was now embarrassed.

Talk of raising money for a ransom was irresponsible, he said.

"Suggesting criminals should be paid ransoms is tantamount to legitimising it. He might as well suggest they register for GST. The police are the people that solve these crimes. Members of Parliament should stay out of it."

Mr Billing said a ransom was not a path the Napier City Council would be taking. Police also rejected the idea.

This month a large bronze sculpture weighing more than a tonne was stolen from outside a restaurant at Waikanae, 60km northeast of Wellington, then anonymously returned after a $10,000 ransom was paid.

Police investigating the theft of Pania of the Reef said it was possible it was a copycat of the Waikanae theft.

Detective John McGregor said police had a sighting of a white Subaru Legacy in the area of the Pania statue about the time of the theft, and were also analysing a shoeprint found at the scene.

The theft appeared to be planned because of the equipment needed to jemmy the statue off its base and to break the bolts holding it in place.

It would probably have required more than one person to carry its 60-70kg weight.

The Pania of the Reef statue represents the legend of the Maori maiden who was torn away from her lover when she was lured into the depths of the ocean by the calls of the sea people.

Mei Whaitiri, 67, modelled for the Pania statue 54 years ago when she was a pupil at Hukarere Girls College in Napier.

She felt a special bond to the statue and was deeply hurt to hear it had been stolen by "lowlife scumbags".

"It's almost like a death in the family for us.

"Three times a week I go for a swim and pass her and give a nod and acknowledge her."