26 March 2019

After two deaths and at least one near miss on the lower Kaituna River, Bay of Plenty Regional Harbourmaster Peter Buell has announced his intention to close the Awesome, Gnarly and Smokey gorges in an effort to prevent further tragedy.

“The gorges pose significant danger – even to experienced kayakers – and the risk of another death is a chance I am not willing to take,” says Buell.

Mr Buell says he intends to close the lower gorges to recreational users from 1 May 2019, but will engage with relevant stakeholders in an effort to identify options for reducing the danger for water-users in the long-term.

A facilitated meeting with all stakeholders including iwi, landowners and recreational river users will be held before 1 May 2019. This meeting may lead to the Regional Harbourmaster reconsidering his intention to close the lower gorges. Existing commercial white-water rafting and other recreational activities outside the gorges would be unaffected by the intended closure, he says.

Mr Buell says the three gorge sections contain a number of serious hazards, including submerged logs.

“Both previous fatalities involved experienced kayakers who had paddled the river many times. However, less experienced kayakers can also access the area, which puts themselves and others, including search and rescue operations in serious danger.”

Mr Buell says three options have been considered in relation to improving safety on the river – maintaining the status quo, removing the hazards and closing the gorges for recreational use.

“Maintaining things as they are is not acceptable given the risks that exist, while the difficult conditions make it unsafe to try to remove the hazards and keep the gorges clear of future danger.

“Attempts to remove the hazards would create significant health and safety risks to everyone involved.

“There is no perfect solution for this issue. My legislated role is to ensure people are safe on the water; at this stage, the gorge closure is the best possible option to do this.

“We recognise the closure will disappoint some recreational users who are passionate about the area, but we are prepared to make the difficult decisions in order to keep people safe,” he says

The closure will be incorporated into the next regional navigation safety bylaw review, which will also provide opportunity for further public input.