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Forest & Bird is calling on councils around the country to fix inadequate rules for vehicles on beaches after only one council – Dunedin City – scored the top ranking for protecting coastal species.  

A Forest & Bird investigation has revealed that 73 percent (just over two-thirds) of Aotearoa New Zealand’s councils have inadequate bylaws, monitoring, and compliance for vehicles on beaches, which means coastal species and the environments they live in are left vulnerable and unprotected. 

The investigation was prompted by ongoing concerns from Forest & Bird branches around the motu – and members of the public – who are devastated watching vehicles driving on beaches with no regard to nesting and feeding seabirds, resting marine mammals, recovering vegetation and vulnerable sand dunes. 

South Otago branch says they are blessed to have a wonderful environment, the Catlins, close to where they live. Yet they have observed dangerous and inappropriate driving from trail bike riders and other vehicle drivers ripping up the beaches with rapid accelerations and doughnuts.   

Over the past year, they have seen sea lions being harassed by vehicles while resting on beaches; a decrease in the pied stilt, tern, and gull populations within the Mātaitai Reserve; and found a kororā little blue penguin which appeared to have been run over by a vehicle at Tautuku beach. 

In Northland, the Northern branch grapples with habitat destruction as four-wheel drives and other vehicles tear up sand dunes and lower the sand height – increasing erosion and making shorebirds nests more vulnerable to storms and rough seas. 

Last year, vehicles driving through Rototai Reserve in Golden Bay squashed nearly all of the pohowera banded dotterel nests. The reserve is part of the E Toru Nga Awa coastal restoration project, led by the Forest & Bird Golden Bay branch volunteers. 

“Kiwis love nature and Aotearoa has some of the most threatened coastal wildlife in the world,” says Chelsea McGaw, regional conservation manager for Otago and Southland.  

“Yet protection for species who make their homes on our beaches is confusing and differs wildly between different local and national organisations, and legislation.” 

In Forest & Bird's analysis, 52 coastal councils (district, city and unitary) were rated based on their answers to three questions asked under the Local Government Official Information and Meetings Act (LGOIMA).  

The questions covered whether councils had any existing regulations restricting or prohibiting vehicles driving on beaches; whether they had allocated funding, resources, or staff to enforce any existing regulations; and if there was any public information and/or guidance on the council website about vehicles driving on beaches.   

Answers were analysed, scored and ratings awarded ranging from 'no protection' through to 'protected'. Only one, Dunedin City Council, received the top 'protected' ranking. 

All rankings are available in a report and summarised in an infographic

Carl Morgan, regional conservation manager for Auckland, says the infographic is a handy tool that allows people to see where their council sits compared to others in Aotearoa.  

“There may be beach-by-beach differences depending on whether the coast is accessible or if it is part of a regional or national park, for example. But by calculating average ratings for each council, our analysis provides a countrywide snapshot of just how inadequate current rules are for protecting our coastal wildlife. 

“We appreciate that on some beaches, vehicles are necessary to access private property, launch boats, gather kaimoana, and for emergency situations – but we believe all legitimate activities need to be undertaken with care and respect to our coastal species and their environment.” 

This summer, Forest & Bird is pushing for communities and councils to work together to protect their beaches and coastal wildlife from damage caused by recreational driving. Councils should tighten up regulations and the public are encouraged to report any offenders to the appropriate authorities, such as their local council, the Department of Conservation (DOC), or the NZ Police. 

“Councils must work together to improve coastal protections for the precious wildlife, ecosystems and features that make our coasts so unique and wonderful,” says Ms McGaw. “An arbitrary council boundary line should not result in these stark differences in coastal protections. 

“We’d like the 2023/24 summer to be one when people choose to walk rather than drive on our beaches; appreciate the unique wildlife we have on our coasts and improve biodiversity for the benefit of all our communities.” 

Forest & Bird recommends councils: 

  • Use the Land Transport Act to restrict the use of motor vehicles on unformed legal roads (beaches) for the purpose of protecting the environment, instead of relying on provisions in the Local Government Act which does not allow bylaw creation for environmental reasons. 

  • Put more resource into compliance and enforcement of regulations as well as public education. 

  • Provide better information to the public about driving on beaches, such as dedicated webpages on each council’s website and clear and adequate signage at beach entry points. 

  • Prioritise the implementation of the National Policy Statement on Indigenous Biodiversity which includes requirements for councils to identify and protect habitats of several coastal bird species. 

  • Improve cooperation across and between councils, DOC, and the NZ Police to enforce local regulation (bylaws) and national legislation. 

Individuals and communities can get involved by: 

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