The ownership of New Zealand's coastline and the issue of customary title are shaping up as major political issues as the Government prepares to repeal the Foreshore and Seabed Act.

This week, we investigate coastal ownership and examine the implications of scrapping this contentious law. Land Information New Zealand has exclusively released detailed maps and statistics to the Herald about coastal ownership.

Today, in the first of a five-part series, we look at Northland's coastal land.

Visitors to Nora and Waata Rameka's piece of paradise in Northland pay for the privilege of surfing off Takou Bay.

North of the Bay of Islands, it's a place where the breakers constantly pound golden sand and the Takou River meanders like a fattened eel out to the sea. Historically important, it's where the Mataatua waka's migratory journey ended centuries ago.

Ngati Rehia, through 600 shareholders, own 242ha across seven blocks of Maori freehold land which borders the foreshore and seabed here.

Takou is a prime candidate for customary title once the Government repeals the Foreshore and Seabed Act. It is likely to meet the legal tests, including iwi having to prove exclusive use and occupation of an area since 1840, to qualify for the title.

Attorney-General Christopher Finlayson has indicated that the title will provide a limited form of ownership to areas covered by the ebb and flow of the tide but defined technically as between the line of mean high water springs and the 12-nautical-mile limit.

Applicants will either apply to the courts to confirm customary title or enter into negotiations with the Government to nut out just what property rights are attached to the title.

The Ramekas live in the first of 18 homes inside a gate, where a sign warns the public they are entering private property. Further down the brown clay road, visitors must stop at a little wayside building and pay $5 to continue down to the beach.

The fee goes towards road maintenance, gorse control and eventually a new marae for the hapu.

Most of the families, fishermen and surfers who come through don't complain too much, says Mrs Rameka, a former university lecturer.

"We find the relationship with the public is okay. They come fishing at home. We don't stop them because we think it's good to enjoy all that stuff. As long as they respect the whenua. That's our main rule."

There are plenty of beaches the public are "locked out" of around these parts, including neighbouring Waioua Bay, Elliots and Otaha Beaches, mainly because to getting to them would involve traversing private land, Mrs Rameka says.

"Tapuaetahi doesn't have access, unless you know someone there. You can't just go wandering up to Kauri Cliffs."

But access to Takou has not always been appreciated, Mr Rameka believes. "We shut it off for a few years. We were getting too many yobbos drinking down here chucking and leaving their glass bottles. We'd have to clean that up otherwise the kids would get hurt."

Like anywhere else, property rights - or, in a Maori context, expression of tino rangatiratanga - have always been important at Takou, the couple say.

So when the Court of Appeal's decision that Maori could explore whether they owned foreshore and seabed was extinguished by the 2004 act that said the Crown owned it, Ngati Rehia were angry.

But that gave way to the realisation that in practical terms - because they held the land - nothing on the ground would change.

Unlike other iwi or hapu who had sold or lost their land by other means along the coastline, Ngati Rehia had not relinquished their way of life.

"We live here, we still own the land here right by the moana [sea]. We never believe we gave up ownership.

"For us our tikanga, our way of living, still stands," Mrs Rameka said. "We see our kaimoana [seafood], we monitor it, we make decisions on rahui [fishing bans]. We don't say you can't come here, we say, 'Come here by our rules'."

Far North Mayor Wayne Brown supports the public paying to access the coast through Maori-owned land.

"The idea of paying, it's contentious to some people, it's not contentious to me. I get access to a beautiful beach. I pay to park my car in buildings don't I?

"Nothing frightens me about what they're trying to do. I don't have any trouble with land that has been owned for a long time and held carefully coming under customary title. I'm not opposed to them having control."

However, Mayor Brown said, some northern Maori were putting it around that customary title should apply everywhere. If the land in question did not meet the required tests, that view was nonsensical.

"There's hot heads in every argument and the debate goes ahead best when they're isolated and the broad middle of Maoridom and the broad middle of everyone else has a clear understanding of what's going on."

SLIM PICKINGS FOR REMAINING OWNERS

In Northland, customary title could apply to nearly a fifth of the coastline.

Maori ownership is scattered, meaning the issue affects tangata whenua from tribal groups including Ngati Wai, Ngati Whatua, Ngapuhi, Te Rarawa, Te Aupouri, Ngati Kuri, Ngati Kahu and others.

However, it's mainly hapu or whanau who are likely to address it in the first instance as they own the land.

AUT historian Paul Moon said with potentially thousands of Maori owners, the pattern has major implications for settling the issue. If the Government doesn't manage it properly hapu or iwi could be tied up in the legal process for decades, a result neither the Government nor tribes will be keen on.

Ngatikahu ki Whangaroa spokeswoman Ella Henry, whose tribal area stretches from the eastern side of the Mangonui Harbour to the Whangaroa Harbour, said after all the angst and ill feeling of the past few years, the data shows that for northern Tai Tokerau tribes the total land where the repeal legislation is likely to apply amounts to "scraps".

"There's no way all of that land was sold. But one way or another it's disappeared out of Maori ownership and control. It's heartbreaking."

Te Runanga a Iwi o Ngapuhi chairman Sonny Tau said he hoped hapu and the Government would take a pragmatic approach once the legislation was in place.

It was a "romantic" notion that any legislation would apply to sand and seabed where non-Maori or the Crown owned land abutting the foreshore.

"The hapu will negotiate discreet areas - but over the whole foreshore boundaries we've got no show."