A lack of water safety lessons at Tauranga schools has concerned members of a group hoping to combat the Bay's high drowning toll.
The concerns were raised at a forum discussing Water Safety New Zealand's new regional strategy, held at Classic Flyers on Monday.
Water Safety New Zealand data shows the Bay has the fourth highest regional drowning rate in New Zealand. Eleven people have drowned in Tauranga and six in Rotorua since 2015.
Reon Tuanau, a tangata whenua member of the governance group which will lead the strategy, said education was identified as a key approach to help prevent further drownings.
"It is not about learning how to swim first, it is about learning to swim to survive first," Tuanau said.
Tuanau said teaching water safety did not seem to be a priority for local schools. Many schools did not have access to pools or were getting rid of their pools because of upkeep costs.
"We need to bring the importance of water safety back," he said.
On average, three Europeans, two Māori and one Asian have drowned every year in the region between 2007 and 2016.
Tuanau said the strategy needed to find different ways to communicate with and educate groups at "the wrong end of the statistics".
"It is eliminating that 'macho man' approach. The impacts of drowning are felt across the whole community - by Māori and non-Māori," he said.
"We need to change the culture and attitudes of people towards water safety."
A Water Safety NZ review conducted by Sport Bay of Plenty in 2015-2016 showed about half of 138 Bay schools did not offer water safety programmes to children aged 5 to 13.
Strategic partnerships and communication manager Sheridan Bruce said learning water safety skills at school was vital for children.
The review found a lack of skilled, trained teachers was the largest barrier to water survival lessons at schools, followed by costs of sessions, curriculum conflicts, cost of transport and access to a school pool.
Water Safety New Zealand chief executive Jonty Mills said the organisation wanted communities to take the lead in promoting the safe enjoyment of local swim spots.
More than 350 pupils from Te Akau Ki Papamoa School have completed a four-week Water Skills For Life programme for Year 1 to 8 pupils to learn water survival techniques.
The low-decile school did not have a swimming pool on site and learned at Bartlett Swim School in Papamoa this month.
Scott Bartlett said pupils had eight half-hour lessons learning how to get in and out of the water, move through water, go under the water, use lifejackets and what to do in an emergency.
"We are a coastal community, we are surrounded by water," Bartlett said. "If we give these kids those skills, we can try to prevent any further drownings."
Bartlett said a lot of schools did not have swimming pools on site, making it difficult to run lessons and water safety programmes.
There were many reasons why families could not send their child to swimming lessons - including budget constraints, Bartlett said.
Te Akau Ki Papamoa deputy principal Tane Bennett said many pupils at the coastal school did not have the opportunity to learn basic water safety skills - therefore learning to swim became a school priority.
"It is known that New Zealand has one of the highest drowning rates in the developed world," he said.
"We believe it's essential that all Kiwi kids have the skills they need to be safe in and around the water."
Bennett said children could be hindered by a lack of confidence, but completing the programme had helped the pupils overcome their fears.
"Some of our children were reluctant in taking part at first, they lacked confidence in getting into the water, or were afraid of not being confident enough around their peers."
The governance group set up by WSNZ to lead the strategy in Bay of Plenty is made up of:
• Cr Kevin Winters – Bay of Plenty Regional Council
• Shirley Baker – Sport Bay of Plenty board member
• Jonty Mills – Water Safety New Zealand chief executive
• Reon Tuanau – Tangata whenua
• Mark Hemmingway – NZ Sport Fishing Council board member
• Chris Emmett – Surf Life Saving regional manager – Eastern Region