It’s feared a new carpark and cycle path planned for the coastline north of Kaikōura will spell the end of one of New Zealand’s best surfing breaks. David Williams reports.

What the 2016 earthquakes couldn’t do – destroy a top surfing spot on the upper South Island’s east coast – might be achieved, ironically, in the name of the post-quake rebuild.

Emergency powers have been used to push through plans for a parking area and coastal path, protected by a sea wall, at Mangamaunu, just north of Kaikōura. The Transport Agency and KiwiRail say the work’s being done for safety, to improve access to the break and protect the yet-to-be-built path from erosion.

Conservation Minister Eugenie Sage raised concerns last month, saying in a submission that any work should “avoid impacts on the nationally significant surfbreaks at Mangamaunu”, which is protected under the New Zealand Coastal Policy Statement.

Nevertheless, consents for paving and armouring a coastline were granted last week by the district and regional councils. The consents have been fast-tracked under a parliamentary Order In Council – which expired last week – put in place to speed up the rebuild of quake-hit infrastructure, like roads and rail lines. (Importantly, using quake powers limits public notification and potential appeals.)

Surfers, usually a laid-back bunch, are seething. A group called the Surfbreak Protection Society is considering legal action to stop the work, and is in the throes of launching a Givealittle campaign.

Surfbreak’s president Paul Shanks, of Whangamata, in the Coromandel, notes Mangamaunu featured in a special NZ Post stamp issue featuring five of the country’s prime surfing breaks last year. The issue proudly states Mangamaunu survived the 2016 quakes, and “waves still peel down the point for over 300 metres and new surf breaks have been formed”.

Shanks told Newsroom: “A New Zealand stamp collection has a picture of Mangamaunu on it, peeling in its grandeur, and these people from road and rail want to take it out. It’s part of the scene of the scenic route, which they’re going to decimate. It’s absurd. It’s sad.”

How can a surfing break be broken up?

Surfbreak’s research and communications officer Michael Gunson, of Auckland, says placing a large, monolithic structure on a beach interferes with sediment movement. As a sea wall doesn’t move, wave action can scour out areas of the foreshore and seabed, which, in turn, changes the shape of waves. Surfbreaks are sensitive to manmade features, Gunson says.

“Once you lose a naturally formed surfbreak, it’s almost impossible to get it back.”

A boat ramp and breakwater built in the late 1960s at Manu Bay, at the entrance to Raglan beach, has affected the surfing break there. And poor land-use decisions have caused problems at Christchurch’s Scarborough beach and St Clair beach in Dunedin.

Beyond the potential effects, Gunson says the proposed works at Mangamaunu are a misuse of emergency powers. That stretch of road wasn’t damaged by the quake, he says. There were no slips in that area. So who’s asking for the work to be done?

The proposed works are part of a package of what the Transport Agency calls “minor adjustments” stretching from Mangamaunu to Okiwi Bay.

The agency’s earthquake recovery manager Tim Crow wasn’t available for an interview yesterday. But in an emailed statement, he said the Mangamaunu plans will “significantly enhance” safety and amenity. At present, surfers park at an informal layby and have to cross State Highway 1 and rail lines to reach the beach.

KiwiRail’s general manager of strategic projects Walter Rushbrook takes this point of a “longstanding safety issue”, saying:: “We have had anecdotal reports of surfers being observed sitting on deckchairs on the tracks watching the beach.”

Crow says coastal works at Mangamaunu will be set back 5 metres from the mean high water spring mark and NZTA is working with coastal experts to minimise any effects on the coastal edge and surrounding area.“There is not anticipated to be any adverse effects on the surf break from this work.”

However, scientists have differing opinions on the effect of a new, sloping rock revetment, built on the upper beach to protect the new cycling and pedestrian path.

Scientific face-off

NZTA’s coastal engineer Richard Reinen-Hamill, of consultancy Tonkin + Taylor, said the revetment will reflect “slightly more energy” than the existing cobble beach. He concludes any small increase in wave reflection during significant storms “is not anticipated to result in adverse effects” at Mangamaunu.

Not so, says Surfbreak’s consultant Dr Shaw Mead, the managing director of Raglan-based eCoast. Mead says any “works” would have to be 2.5m to 3m above mean high water spring tides to avoid potential problems. He notes the buried foundations of the revetment would be below the low tide water mark.

(NZTA’s Crow says because of the seabed’s uplift, the high tide mark at Mangamaunu is now where low tide used to be.)

Mead predicts the works will cause problems for the renowned surfing break, “with feedback effects such as development of erosion holes and rips unknown”.

Another Surfbreak consultant, Waterlink’s Shane Orchard, says the consent applications only consider sea level rise of 50cm – half the usual amount – which means the effects, including on wave quality, could be far greater than reported.

Many other concerns were raised from a handpicked group of submitters. An ecological assessment notes a permanent loss of potential breeding habitat for “variable oyster catcher and banded dotterel”. Ngāi Tahu worried about the effect on two mātaitai reserves, especially increased sedimentation affecting kaimoana.

“Is it little minnows like us that have to go out and stand up to protect New Zealand law, or should it be the minister? I should imagine it would be the minister.” – Paul Shanks

While their hands were tied in many respects, the councils weren’t immune to the concerns raised.

Environment Canterbury has ordered KiwiRail to undertake a baseline assessment of the Mangamaunu surf break and a high-level assessment to ensure the detailed design of the cycle path and carpark and sea wall avoided adverse effects – “to the extent practicable”.

Meanwhile, the Kaikōura District Council granted the consents but noted the “desired details are lacking”. Its decision, issued last week, said: “The broad description of works provided does not enable a full understanding of what is proposed and why it is proposed.”

The plight of Mangamaunu made national headlines for a different reason last year. Quake rebuild alliance North Canterbury Transport Infrastructure Recovery dumped hundreds of metres of quake debris, up to eight metres high in places, along Mangamaunu beach. It was later removed.

Meanwhile, the controversy over these latest plans has forced authorities to drop a second carpark from its plans. It is unclear whether the remaining carpark will have toilets, because of cultural concerns.

What happens next in this surfing break saga may come down to Surfbreak’s legal advice) and whether Conservation Minister Sage (who couldn’t be reached for comment yesterday) or any of her colleagues are willing or able to step in.

Surfbreak’s Shanks says his group has heard nothing from Sage’s office, other than a thank you letter, despite the looming potential destruction of a nationally significant surfing break.

“Is it little minnows like us that have to go out and stand up to protect New Zealand law, or should it be the minister? I should imagine it would be the minister.”

David Williams is Newsroom's environment editor, South Island correspondent and investigative writer.

Leave a comment