A section of the Kaituna River, known as Gnarly gorge, has been officially closed by the region's harbourmaster in what is being described as a safety move.
Bay of Plenty Regional Harbourmaster Peter Buell has made his decision to ban vessels in a section of the Kaituna River named Pari Tūkino (commonly known as Gnarly gorge) for a six-month period to allow time for options to be explored for improving safety in the area.
It's a compromise on Buell's behalf, who originally intended to close three sections of the river. Despite the compromise, some kayakers are not happy, saying it sets a dangerous precedent that public servants could close public areas.
The closure is a direct result of professional kayaker Louise Jull dying while kayaking Gnarly gorge in March 2015.
Despite her death, her family have always maintained they never wanted the river closed, saying Jull would be devastated her actions led to the closure.
The Harbourmaster made this decision following a meeting on April 16 among neighbouring Māori landowners, local iwi representatives, Te Maru o Kaituna River Authority, Bay of Plenty Regional Council and White Water NZ.
The hui followed a previous announcement of the Harbourmaster's intention to prohibit vessels on Kaituna's Awesome, Gnarly and Smokey gorges.
These lower gorges are not used for commercial rafters or recreational swimmers and are only accessed by experienced whitewater kayakers.
"The meeting brought together widely different points of view, and it provided new information," Buell said.
Iwi and Māori landowners shared their Mātauranga Māori – the traditional values and rites associated with those sections of the Kaituna River.
It was this gift of knowledge that reminded all those around the table of the significant cultural interests within these lower gorges, and the need to put the Kaituna River first in all discussions and decisions, Buell said.
Landowners have since provided Māori names for the gorges - Pari Tūkino (Gnarly gorge), Pari Whakahihi (Awesome gorge) and Pari Kohukohu (Smokey gorge).
The closure is from today but doesn't include the other two gorges at this stage.
"We have agreed there may be options to be explored to see if re-opening the gorge after that period is practicable in terms of maritime safety," Buell said.
While the prohibition, under the Maritime Transport Act 1994 and the Bay of Plenty Regional Navigation Safety Bylaw 2017, applies to all vessels, it will only affect a small number of highly experienced kayakers able to navigate that section of the river – it is unnavigable to powered boats or any other pleasure craft or vessels.
At the meeting, the leadership of Whitewater NZ explained the gorge in its current state was largely unnavigable and hadn't been kayaked for more than a year.
In contrast, the information brought about the other two gorges was that these had better setback for vegetation which reduced the risks of logs and debris, and they posed no risk significantly higher than the typical risks of other sections of whitewater with the same classification.
"In light of that, I have agreed that those gorges won't be subject to the maritime closure. But I appreciate that Whitewater NZ has asked members not to kayak those sections of the river while they work through access issues across private or public lands," Buell said.
The Harbourmaster's decision is based on the primary aim – to avoid further fatalities.
"I still see this maritime closure necessary for the purposes of ensuring maritime safety and avoiding danger to persons at this point in time. When I am satisfied that serious danger no longer exists within Pari Tūkino (Gnarly gorge), then the closure direction can be amended or rescinded," Buell said.
Key stakeholders will continue to talk and work together for the coming six months to explore next steps.
Information about the maritime closure will be provided in public notices, signage and information on various websites.
Whitewater New Zealand president Nigel Parry said Gnarly gorge was a challenging
and rewarding section of whitewater that was highly valued by local and international kayakers.
"Like all outdoor activities, kayaking carries risk and mitigating that is an intrinsic part of
adventure. We don't close mountains, beaches or tracks when accidents occur, and nor should we be closing rivers.
"Other outdoor recreationalists should be very concerned that the law allows public servants to restrict access and adventure in our wild places."
Whitewater New Zealand has been working alongside the local Okere Falls whitewater community, to advocate for ongoing access to this "wild place".
Parry described a recent meeting with Buell, the regional council, the Jull family, land owners, iwi and Te Maru o Kaituna as "a real step forward".
"The meeting gave us the chance to express our perspectives and to identify common ground."