East Coast Maori will light fires to symbolise their historic occupation along the coastline tomorrow in a protest against potential oil drilling by Brazilian giant Petrobras.

This month the Government awarded Petrobras a five-year exploratory permit for 12,333sq km of the Raukumara Basin, which is off East Cape.

Organiser Ani Pahuru-Huriwai from Hicks Bay is hoping that concerned residents from the Eastern Bay of Plenty around the Cape to Gisborne - Whanau Apanui and Ngati Porou heartland country - will turn out in force.

The fires will be supervised, Ms Pahuru-Huriwai said. "We're hoping every beach will have a fire that has been lit by the ahi kaa roa [local Maori]. This is the way we all informed each other, signalled each other way back - through fire. In this case we're saying that it's Petrobras that we're all against."

Given the communities are rural and isolated - Statistics New Zealand estimates 2790 live around East Cape - Ms Pahuru-Huriwai said she had no idea how many would turn up. She reckoned that "on a good day", Hicks Bay and Te Araroa had a resident population of between 600 to 800 and it was a priority to get every one of those people involved.

At the centre of coasties' fears if drilling did occur is a repeat of the massive BP environmental disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, but the ecological impact on fisheries also worries Maori.

"Our fears are amplified by that [disaster]. Papatuanuku [Mother Earth] is bleeding, she's purging blood and there's no way of stopping it, no matter how much money they're throwing at it.

"It's a serious threat to us and our kapata kai [food cupboard]. It's not just a Maori thing either - we think every Kiwi has an issue with it. Everyone who is scared of what's happening, they need to be here."

Te Runanga o Ngati Porou chairman Api Mahuika said his iwi was still smarting from the failure of Energy and Resources minister Gerry Brownlee to consult it, even though he had apologised for not giving the iwi the heads-up about the Raukumara announcement.

"We're reliant on the sea," Mr Mahuika said. "I'm still hopeful we'll be able to catch the horse and put it back into the shed because it's going to be so destructive to our ecosystem."