The RMA Quality Planning Resource

Managing activities in the coastal environment

Coastal development is often accompanied by increasing competition between different users for space for their activities within the coastal environment. There is demand for space for buildings, structures, and facilities, both on land and within the coastal marine area. This demand comes from the need to support recreational activities (eg, walking, swimming, surfing, kayaking, jet skiing and boating), commercial activities (eg, ports and aquaculture), and infrastructure (eg, roading, seawalls, stormwater outfalls, and marine energy generation).

The supply of land on the coast is often limited by natural topography. Coastal land is affected by the dynamic influence of the coast including sea and weather. Where coastal development uses and activities are not compatible or are not managed proactively and effectively, there can be loss of property, loss of public values, and damage to important infrastructure. Competition for space can also cause conflict. This may restrict public access to varying degrees, impact on natural character and coastal landscapes, increasing the risks from natural hazards, affect coastal historic heritage, impact on coastal biodiversity and the special relationship of tangata whenua with the coastal environment.

The coastal marine area is part of the coastal environment. Understanding the extent, characteristics and dynamic nature of the coastal environment is important for managing the wide range of coastal development issues, activities and effects within the coastal environment.

Policy 1 of the NZCPS 2010 provides a list of key components that form part of the coastal environment. It also reminds practitioners that it is important to recognise that the extent and characteristics of the coastal environment vary from region to region and locality to locality; and the issues that arise may have different effects in different localities.

Practitioners have used a number of different approaches to translate an understanding of the coastal environment into RPSs and plans. Whatever method is used, policy statements and plans will need to consider the uses and values within the coastal environment in some way. Plans may use criteria and descriptions to aid understanding of the coastal environment or map this environment but it will depend on the specifics of the area. Further guidance on defining the extent and characteristics of the coastal environment is provided in the NZCPS 2010 implementation guidance.

Policy 6 of the NZCPS 2010 directs decision makers to consider certain matters in relation to activities affecting the coastal environment and the coastal marine area, including consideration of:

  • the appropriateness of an activity
  • the functional need for activities to be in the coast
  • the reasonably foreseeable need of communities and future generations
  • ensuring activities are appropriately located
  • promotion of the efficient use of occupied space.

The NZCPS 2010 implementation guidance provides useful information on how to manage and plan for competing activities on the coast.

Managing the use of coastal space

There are many activities that occur within the coastal environment including urban and rural development, transport, infrastructure, energy generation and transmission, food production and mineral extraction. Land on the coast is often limited. There is the potential to have incompatible activities adjacent to each other. Decisions made about coastal land development can also impact on the coastal marine area. Coastal development is a significant issue for the sustainable management of New Zealand’s coastal environment. The NZCPS 2010 provides policy direction on the future allocation and use of the coast.

The mix of coastal uses can impact on people’s lives and values and presents many planning issues. For example buildings, structures, infrastructure and other activities may affect public access and use or impact on recreational and amenity values others have for the same environment and these things have flow-on effects into the coastal marine area. Territorial authorities can require provision of esplanades (either strips or reserves) to help maintain public access to the coastal marine area. Further information on esplanades is available in the Esplanade Areas guidance material.

Coastal development may result in conflicts between uses and activities. Not all uses of the coastal environment are compatible. For example, traditional swimming areas may be made unsafe by adverse impacts such as the discharge of contaminants and other recreational activities such as jet skiing and surfing. Coastal space needs to be managed so that conflicts are avoided or minimised, amenity values are maintained and enhanced, and safety and navigation requirements are met. Managing conflict will often involve determining what activity takes priority in certain areas.

There are activities that have a functional need to be on the coast such as ports, marine aquaculture and marine energy. Such activities can contribute a lot to communities as long as they are located and managed appropriately. The NZCPS 2010 provides direction for decision making on the management of activities with a functional need to be in the coast, including policies 6, 8 and 9.

Cross-boundary issues

Many coastal structures cross the mean high water springs boundary and cross the jurisdictional boundary between regional and territorial authorities. For example, jetties are usually located both on land and within the coastal marine area to provide easy access to the coast. Integrated management is necessary to manage cross-boundary issues and the effects of the occupation of these types of structures or facilities within the coastal environment.

Effects of activities on tangata whenua values

New and existing coastal developments can adversely impact on the special relationship of tangata whenua with the coast. Tangata whenua can lose access to cultural resources (physical access and ability to harvest resources). Coastal development can result in increased competition for resources valued by tangata whenua for customary use (eg, kaimoana).

Demand for space for temporary activities and events

There are frequent demands to exclusively use parts of the coastal marine area for temporary periods to hold organised activities and events. These events may be public (eg, horse racing on Castlepoint Beach in Wairarapa) or private and require full restriction of public access (eg, filming on beaches). Public activities are generally perceived to be acceptable, as many people participate in or observe such events. Other events, such as surf lifesaving competitions have no option but to take place on the beach and restrict public access to some degree. As coastal settlements grow, temporary events that restrict public from parts of the coastal environment may become less acceptable and have more limitations, especially private events.

Protecting indigenous coastal biodiversity

In this guidance note 'biodiversity' is used as shorthand for the term ‘biological diversity' which is defined in the RMA. New Zealand’s indigenous coastal biodiversity includes the flora and fauna that naturally occur in our land, fresh water and/or marine environments. The impacts of coastal development on terrestrial biodiversity are reasonably well known, but there is less detailed information on the impacts on fresh water and marine habitats. The extent and rate of the loss of biodiversity is a significant resource management issue because the coastal biodiversity that remains is important. Biodiversity considerations are an integral part of managing landscapes, natural character and recognising and providing for tangata whenua’s relationship with the coast.

All councils have the function of maintaining indigenous biodiversity, including coastal biodiversity, under sections 30 and section 31 of the RMA. Councils are also required to recognise and provide for the protection of significant indigenous vegetation and significant habitats of indigenous fauna, as a matter of national importance under s6(c). There needs to be integrated management of protection under the RMA and other statutory mechanisms.

Policy 11 of the NZCPS 2010 seeks to protect indigenous biological diversity in the coastal environment. The policy direction for protection involves: avoiding all adverse effects; avoiding significant adverse effects; or avoiding, remedying or mitigating other adverse effects; depending on the value or how vulnerable a species or ecological community type is. This two tiered approach for protecting indigenous biodiversity includes:

  • Providing the highest level of protection for the indigenous biodiversity that is most at risk from irreversible loss; so avoiding adverse effects on this indigenous coastal biodiversity.
  • A lower level of protection for more common or less at risk indigenous coastal biodiversity.

 Policy 11 provides some guidance on a wide range of native biodiversity to protect.

 Policy 12 of the NZCPS 2010 seeks to provide for the control of activities that could cause the release or spread of harmful aquatic organisms into the coastal environment, and manage the risk of such adverse effects occurring. The policy includes a list of activities that may cause the release or spread of harmful aquatic organisms. Harmful aquatic organisms can impact negatively on our coastal biodiversity, community use and enjoyment, and activities such as aquaculture.

For further guidance on biodiversity see the NZCPS Implementation guidance, the Indigenous Biodiversity Guidance Note and Statement of National Priorities for Protecting Rare and Threatened Native Biodiversity on Private Land.

Impacts on coastal biodiversity from land development

Biodiversity on the coast can be vulnerable to the impacts of existing and new coastal land development, for example discharges from urbanised areas of the coast, reclamations, structures and disturbance to physical processes. Particular effects on marine biodiversity from coastal land development can include:

  • destruction and disturbance of foreshore and seabed and other coastal habitats through reclamations, structures, vegetation clearance, and harvesting
  • sedimentation, contamination and eutrophication of coastal waters including estuaries, harbours, coastal lakes from point and non-point source discharges
  • the introduction and spread of exotic plants, domestic animals and pests in the coastal environment associated with increasing activities on the coast
  • increased harvesting of kaimoana species with increased coastal subdivision and development.
  • the impacts of climate change. New pest species are likely to occur as a result of climate change
  • migratory species are vulnerable to loss of any of the habitats they require, and/or obstructions along their migratory route

Fragmentation and displacement of coastal biodiversity

Ecological linkages with other areas are important for indigenous coastal biodiversity. Coastal development can result in increased fragmentation of natural habitats through damage or removal of vegetation, particularly in areas of sensitive dune and wetland vegetation. Coastal development impacts such as the removal of vegetation, increased foot traffic and vehicles, local weed infestations and the introduction of domestic animals may also result in the disturbance, destruction or displacement of coastal fauna. Migratory species are vulnerable to the loss of habitats that they require and any obstructions to their migratory route.

Lack of knowledge about coastal ecosystems and processes

Coastal land and waters involve complex ecosystems and processes. There is often a lack of knowledge about coastal ecosystems and processes and particularly what is happening in the marine component of the coastal environment. A number of matters can influence the marine environment, and for more complicated issues it can be difficult to trace the cause of observed changes. Information gaps about coastal biodiversity require carefully thought out approaches such as quantitative modelling and forecasting. For example hydrodynamic modelling has been used to gauge effects of nutrients from new salmon farms and forecasting has been used to calculate hazards risks and responses.

Marine reserves and other protection mechanisms can provide benchmark information about the state of marine biodiversity in the areas where they occur. Marine protected areas represent about 3 percent of New Zealand’s marine environment. Practitioners often have to rely on localised assessments of marine biodiversity through resource consent applications. Characterisation reports prepared by community groups may also provide local assessments of marine biodiversity.

Harmful aquatic organisms

Various exotic species have been introduced into the coastal environment. The NZCPS 2010 Policy 12 focuses on harmful aquatic organisms. Dunes are susceptible to weed invasions from coastal development and estuarine and other coastal ecosystems can be threatened by the invasion of exotic species. Species can spread by vessels associated with increased coastal use and land development and the exchanging of ballast water, boat hull encrustations, and transport of equipment from one coastal area to another. Climate change can mean that new species occur in areas where they were previously absent and may impact on the coastal environment and indigenous biodiversity and other related coastal values.


The increase in sediment and nutrient discharges to the coastal marine area from coastal development has been identified as contributing to the accelerated growth of mangroves in many northern New Zealand harbours. Mangroves play an important role in coastal ecosystems by enhancing water quality, protecting coastal margins from erosion, and providing habitat for coastal flora and fauna. But the expansion of mangroves can lead to:

  • rapid spread into non-vegetated coastal areas
  • trapping sediments
  • restricting access to beaches and recreation areas
  • adverse impacts on amenity values.

Protecting biodiversity values important to tangata whenua

The impacts of coastal land development on indigenous biodiversity can be a significant issue for tangata whenua. Protecting biodiversity can help ensure the health and abundance of coastal resources such as kaimoana (seafood) and cultural materials such as taonga raranga (eg, pingao, a native sand sedge used in traditional cloaks and tukutuku), and helps to protect the mauri (life principle) of the coast.

Some coastal environments and associated biodiversity, such as particular dune systems, will have special significance to tangata whenua. It is important that the biodiversity of significance to tangata whenua is considered as well as general biodiversity value when managing the impacts from coastal development. Tangata whenua may also advocate that particular areas of indigenous biodiversity require enhancement to restore areas already degraded.

Preserving the natural character of the coastal environment

New Zealanders have a strong affinity for the natural character of our coast. Natural character comprises the living and non-living elements and patterns and processes that are natural to our coast.

Preserving the natural character of the coastal environment and protecting it from inappropriate subdivision, use and development is a matter of national importance under s6(a) of the RMA. Preserving indicates the need to maintain in the existing state. This presents a challenge for practitioners as subdivision, use and development can significantly change the character of the coast.

Natural character always exists to some degree in coastal areas and can vary on a spectrum from pristine and natural to highly modified environments. Some inappropriate coastal developments can adversely affect natural character even on a highly modified coast. Particular consideration needs to be given to protecting areas of unmodified natural character and avoiding cumulative effects on natural character arising from sprawling or sporadic subdivision.

Policy 13 of the NZCPS 2010 directs the preservation of the natural character of the coastal environment and its protection from inappropriate subdivision, use and development. This requires the natural character of the coastal environment to be assessed, at least areas of high natural character to be mapped or otherwise identified, and provisions to be included in statutory plans where necessary to preserve natural character. Policy 13(2) recognises that natural character occurs on a continuum and provides a list of matters that may be included, including biophysical and geological aspects, natural landforms and wild and scenic areas. The policy distinguishes between natural character, natural features and landscapes and amenity values.

Policy 14 of the NZCPS 2010 promotes the restoration of the natural character of the coastal environment through improved information and statutory provisions including consent conditions.

For further guidance on managing natural character see the NZCPS Implementation guidance and the Department of Conservation natural character reports.

Defining 'natural character'

One of the challenges of preserving the natural character of the coast is defining what it means in a particular location. Although not defined in the RMA, natural character has been increasingly codified through the Courts and the NZCPS 2010. The meaning of words in s6(a) of the RMA, such as 'preservation', 'protection' and 'inappropriate', require consideration and judgement in relation to the circumstances of the case and consideration of the sustainable management purpose of the RMA.

Natural character is the term used to describe the natural elements of all coastal environments. The degree or level of natural character depends on:

  1. The extent to which the natural elements, patterns and processes occur (refer to the attributes included in Policy 13(2) of the NZCPS 2010);
  2. The nature and extent of modification to ecosystems and landscape/seascape;
  3. The degree of natural character (greatest naturalness) occurs where there is least modification;
  4. The effect of different types of modification upon natural character varies with context and may be perceived differently by different parts of the community.

This definition of natural character was endorsed by a workshop of practitioners hosted by the Department of Conservation on 2 August 2011 and was sourced from the Ministry for the Environment Environmental Performance Indicators Natural Character Workshop held in 2002 (with slight modifications).

Further discussion on natural character is provided in the Department of Conservation August 2011 report on natural character.

Risk of incremental loss of natural character

The natural character of the coastal environment can be adversely affected through the effects of coastal subdivision, use and development. In the Community Guide to Coastal Development under the RMA 1991, the Environmental Defence Society outlines the following impacts that development can have on the natural character of the coast:

  • modification of natural landforms through earthworks
  • removal of indigenous vegetation
  • destruction of important indigenous habitats such as wetlands, dunes and riparian margins
  • disruption of natural drainage patterns
  • disruption of natural coastal processes including through activities such as beach replenishment, reclamations and coastal structures
  • increased sediment runoff from land clearance and earthworks
  • buildings and structures which are singly or cumulatively visually intrusive or dominant within the landscape
  • disrupting natural patterns through inappropriate landscaping and/or the planting of non-indigenous local species.

The extent to which development impacts on natural character will depend on how modified the environment currently is, and how well the development has been designed to accommodate elements of natural character (including coastal processes) and mitigate adverse impacts. The risk of incremental loss of natural character as a result of coastal land development and other activities in the coast is high.

Managing the cumulative effects of coastal development can be a significant issue once the precedent for development has been set. Where coastal development has resulted in a reduction in the degree of natural character this may result in that area being considered more appropriate for future concentration of development. It is important that plans have clear policies in place to avoid adverse cumulative effects.

Outstanding natural character

Some coastal areas will be identified as having outstanding natural character. These areas will require the greatest level of protection compared with areas where coastal natural character is already compromised, such as areas that are already highly dominated by structures, buildings or infrastructure.

Natural character assessment and mapping

While there is general agreement on the core elements of natural character, there is a high variability in the descriptive and evaluative methods used to manage it. Natural character may be mapped or identified and provided for in RPSs, plans and consents. There is a need for good information gathering and integrated and strategic thinking. Further information on natural character assessment is provided in the Department of Conservation Natural Character and the NZCPS, August 2011 report and the Natural Character Marlborough Workshop, September 2011.

Restoration of natural character

Practitioners will need to consider restoration and rehabilitation of natural character of areas, as required by Policy 14 of the NZCPS 2010. Practitioners will determine whether the adverse effects on natural character of the coastal environment from new and existing development can be remedied, mitigated or offset by restoration or rehabilitation. In already developed areas, restoration efforts will generally require the cooperation of landowners.

Protecting coastal landscapes

Coastal landscapes are important to New Zealanders. In some places natural features and coastal landscapes have been degraded and there has been incremental loss of them. Protecting outstanding natural features and landscapes from inappropriate subdivision, use or development is a matter of national importance under s6(b) of the RMA. Coastal landscapes often have features which make them outstanding. Many coastal landscapes are significant to tangata whenua.

Coastal development may modify coastal landscapes through the construction of roads, tracks, buildings and structures and associated earthworks and vegetation clearance. Coastal landscapes can be particularly vulnerable to impacts from coastal development due to the high visibility of these landscapes from the sea, foreshore and skylines.

Policy 15 of the NZCPS 2010 directs the protection of natural features and natural landscapes (including seascapes) of the coastal environment from inappropriate subdivision, use and development. Policy 15 promotes the identification of natural features and natural landscapes by local authorities as a basis for provisions in policy statements and plans. Landscape characterisation is identified as the preferred assessment method. The Policy sets out matters to have regard to when doing such landscape assessments.

The challenge for practitioners is to define and assess coastal landscapes and provide for their appropriate level of protection in RMA policies and plans. The Department of Conservation NZCPS 2010 implementation guidance, the Environmental Defence Society’s publications Landscape Planning Guide for Peri-Urban and Rural Areas and Community Guide to Landscape Protection under the RMA, and the Landscape Guidance Note provide further guidance on protecting landscapes.

Identifying and assessing coastal landscapes

Identifying and articulating outstanding and other coastal landscapes can be challenging. There can be barriers to getting community acceptance of any associated regulatory provisions and there is no single agreed assessment methodology. Assessments are increasingly using expert peer review processes to ensure good practice.

The New Zealand Institute of Landscape Architects and the Environment Court have grouped landscape assessment criteria to identify three key categories of landscape attributes:

  1. Biophysical elements, patterns and processes
  2. Associative meanings and values including spiritual, cultural or social associations and
  3. Sensory or perceptual associations.

Expert landscape assessments and a strategic planning approach can enable practitioners to protect coastal landscapes. Expert assessments by professionals such as landscape architects and landscape planners are usually area based or development proposal driven. Further information on landscape assessments is provided in the Landscape Guidance Note.

Managing development impacts on coastal landscapes

Coastal land development has the potential to significantly impact on coastal landscapes and natural character by changing the naturalness of an area, and the visual, cultural and amenity values associated with the coastal landscape.

New and existing coastal development can be designed and located to minimise adverse effects on landscape and natural features. The challenge for practitioners is to ensure that RMA planning documents reflect the direction of the NZCPS 2010 and section 6 of the RMA by avoiding the adverse impacts of development on coastal landscapes while still allowing for appropriate development in locations where development is considered appropriate (refer to the policy direction in Policy 6(1) of the NZCPS 2010).

Policy 15 of the NZCPS provides direction to practitioners. Adverse effects of activities on areas of outstanding natural features and landscapes are to be avoided and significant adverse effects are to be avoided. All other effects are to be avoided, remedied or mitigated.

Impact on landscapes when viewed from land and sea

Coastal landscape views from land and sea can be adversely affected by the individual and cumulative effects of inappropriate subdivision, use or development. Coastal developments can be highly visible from the sea and impact on the quality of the visual landscape from the sea. Coastal development may be visible from land that is not directly adjacent (eg, other side of the harbour) and adversely impact on the coastal landscape. Practitioners need to consider landscapes in their entirety and their role within a wider coast. Where possible, practitioners should maintain and enhance the visual coastal landscape links between the coastal marine area and the landward coastal environment.

Importance of coastal landscapes for tangata whenua

Coastal landscapes are of particular importance to tangata whenua. This is reflected in Maori tradition and legends, including wahi ingoa (place names), purakau (traditional stories) and whakatauki (proverbs), and the exercise of customary activities.

Particular coastal landscapes may be identified as significant cultural landscapes by tangata whenua. Such landscapes may include concentrations of pa and wahi tapu sites. They may also include important pou whenua, such as rock formations, cliffs and trees that provide traditional markers within the environment. Other important aspects of coastal landscapes include view shafts to and from marae and the sea, the views of prominent headlands, and ara (trails). Changes to the coastal landscape as a result of coastal land development can affect the relationship of Māori with ancestral lands, water, wahi tapu and wahi taonga. 

Maintaining and enhancing public access

New Zealanders have a close association with the coast. The ability to access and enjoy the coast is a significant contributor to people's quality of life and sense of community well-being. The maintenance and enhancement of public access to and along the margins of the coast, rivers and other waterways is recognised as a matter of national importance in section 6(d) of the RMA and reflected in several policies of the NZCPS 2010. This includes providing for public open space and walking access in the coastal environment and recognising esplanade reserves or esplanade strips as a management tool. The Esplanade Reverses, Esplanade Strips and Access Stripes Guidance Note provides additional information. The Marine and Coastal Area (Takutai Moana) Act 2011 promotes free public access in, on or over the entire common marine and coastal area. It also preserves and protects existing recreational fishing rights and navigation rights.

Policy 18 and Policy 6 (in particular clauses (1)(i) and (2)(b)) of the NZCPS 2010), promote the provision and enjoyment of public open space in and near the coastal marine area, including its waters. Linkages with natural character, natural features, natural landscapes and amenity values are also recognised to ensure the provision of open space is compatible with these other values. Esplanade reserves and strips are required to be recognised as a tool to help meet the need for public open space. Coastal processes and climate change are required to be considered so as not to compromise access to public open space.

Policy 19 of the NZCPS seeks to maintain and enhance public walking access to, along and adjacent to the coastal marine area. Restrictions on access are provided for only when necessary, where specified values are likely to be adversely affected.

Policy 20 of the NZCPS directs control of the use of vehicles on beaches, foreshore, seabed and adjacent public land where there is harm to particular values in the coastal environment. Vehicle use on beaches, foreshore, seabed and adjacent public land is not precluded by Policy 20. The policy seeks to provide for vehicle access where this is appropriate, for example for recreational purposes, when and where vehicle access will not cause adverse effects, and access for emergency vehicles.

Another relevant NZCPS 2010 policy is Policy 16 which seeks to protect nationally significant surf breaks, access to them, and their use and enjoyment.

Practitioners are required to maintain and enhance public access to and along the coastal marine area, where possible and to identify situations where public access to the coast is inappropriate (eg, for habitat protection, public safety and security amongst other things). The provision of public access in the coastal environment should be integrated with other methods including tools under the Local Government Act 2002. For further guidance on public access see the NZCPS Implementation guidance.

Loss of open space

Open space often makes a significant contribution to the public’s sense of appreciation and direct experience of coastal places. Public open space should be maintained and enhanced where possible and is an important design consideration for coastal subdivisions, uses or other developments. Good design includes thinking through how to integrate on-site management with the wider strategies and policy direction provided in district and regional plans. This can include considering how to provide for community values for open space.

Identifying opportunities to enhance public access

Undeveloped land in peri-urban and rural areas and redevelopment of urban coastal areas provides opportunities to enhance public access. Early planning for public access, such as establishing reserves and walkways, can provide links with open space planning for an area. Open space planning is important for coastal developments as these developments often result in a perceived loss of open space, even if open space was not available for public access prior to development (eg, farmland).

Maintaining public access

'Coastal squeeze' can impact on public access. 'Coastal squeeze' occurs where natural coastal features, habitats and ecosystems are ‘squeezed’ and can disappear, between the waves and an armoured shoreline (such as hard protection structures), especially when there is coastal erosion and/or sea level rise which causes the shoreline profile, and natural features to migrate inland. This can reduce, degrade or remove public access to and along the coast between mean low and high water springs. Esplanade areas are particularly important in these situations as they may be the only available high tide public access along the shore and provide a buffer during periods of erosion.

Situations where public access may be restricted

There are some sensitive areas within the coastal environment where there may be a need to restrict public access as coastal development occurs. Policy 19(3) of the NZCPS 2010 provides guidance on when it is appropriate to restrict public access and enforce any restrictions (eg, to protect marine biodiversity or cultural values). The Coastal and Marine Area (Takuati Moana) Act 2011 also provides mechanisms to restrict public access in the common coastal marine area in certain circumstances.

Vehicles on beaches

Vehicles on beaches can have adverse impacts on some coastal values and other forms of public access (such as walking access). This issue is exacerbated by the inclusion of beaches within the definition of roads under the Land Transport Act 1998. Vehicles may disturb or possibly cause injury to people using beaches, and can adversely impact on other amenity values due to their noise and visual impact. Vehicles can also cause significant damage to sensitive dune systems and coastal flora, and disrupt valuable mating, breeding, resting and nesting sites for indigenous bird species. Vehicles can disrupt and damage archaeological sites and wahi tapu and impact on cultural values.

Effects of public access on tangata whenua values

Many issues associated with coastal public access are also of concern to tangata whenua. Adverse impacts on cultural values such as wahi tapu and wahi taonga can impact on tangata whenua and can disrupt customary practices. Policy 13(3)(c) of the NZCPS 2010 acknowledges that it may be appropriate to restrict public access in order to protect Maori cultural values. Protecting such areas should be carried out in accordance with tikanga Maori.

Identifying and protecting coastal historic heritage

Coastal areas have been favoured places for settlement since humans arrived in New Zealand. Consequently much of the country's historic heritage is located within the coastal environment, both on land and within the coastal marine area. Examples of coastal historic heritage include landscapes (eg, Young Nicks Head in Gisborne), structures (eg, ship wrecks, lighthouses), places (eg, Ship Cove in Marlborough Sounds) and sites of significance to Maori (eg, wahi tapu, coastal pa) and other archaeological sites.

Policy 17 of the NZCPS seeks to protect historic heritage in the coastal environment from inappropriate subdivision, use, and development, and directs local authorities to identify and assess coastal historic sites in collaboration with others including iwi authorities and kaitiaki. The policy highlights that an integrated approach to managing historic heritage in the coastal environment is highly beneficial. Policy 2 of the NZCPS 2010 also has relevant provisions.

For further guidance on historic heritage see the NZCPS Implementation guidance. The Historic Heritage Guidance Note provides general guidance of relevance to protecting coastal heritage including identifying places, assessing heritage values and methods to protect historic heritage (such as the use of incentives, regulatory controls and mapping).

Identifying and protecting coastal historic heritage

The coastal environment contains rich historic heritage due to the historical predominance of settlements in coastal areas (both pre and post colonisation). There are many historic heritage sites and the key challenge for practitioners is how to identify and manage these, particularly if located in the coastal marine area. The difficulties arise when historic heritage sites within the coastal marine area are not readily visible (eg, a sunken shipwreck) or identifiable, are privately owned (eg, boatsheds), or are publicly used and have maintenance and safety issues (eg, jetties). The protection of archaeological sites in areas sensitive to development eg, dunes and harbour margins is also an issue.

Many coastal heritage sites and structures cross mean high water springs, meaning that both regional councils and territorial authorities are responsible for their protection, for example, wharves. This requires integrated management of coastal heritage. Some historic sites or structures can also raise issues for public safety.

Identifying and protecting wahi tapu and other taonga

Identifying and protecting wahi tapu and other taonga that contribute to coastal historic heritage can be a significant challenge for practitioners. Some wahi tapu within the coastal environment are well known, tangible and easy to identify (eg, registered New Zealand Archaeology Association sites). However, many wahi tapu are intangible or in undisclosed locations. Tangata whenua may consider that non-disclosure of the location of wahi tapu is a more effective means of protection for the item itself, or the mana associated with it, than through identification in planning processes. This can create uncertainty and may result in their accidental loss.

Practitioners need to work closely with tangata whenua to find an appropriate means to identify and protect coastal wahi tapu and other taonga. The identification and protection of taonga in the coastal environment, such as places, sites or resources of significance (other than wahi tapu), may need to be incorporated through other provisions such as biodiversity, landscape and natural character provisions.

Managing water quality

Water quality is fundamental for coastal biodiversity, habitat and ecosystem health and for coastal activities such as swimming, fishing, marine farming and shellfish gathering.

Policy 21 of the NZCPS 2010, Enhancement of water quality, is the core policy about water quality. It sets the goal of improving water quality in the coastal environment where it has deteriorated and is having a significant adverse effect on ecosystems, natural habitats, or water-based recreational activities, or is restricting existing uses, such as aquaculture, shellfish gathering, and cultural activities. This policy outlines the priority means of improving water quality, like what to include in resource management plans; restoring water quality so it can support activities, ecosystems and habitats; excluding stock; and engaging with tangata whenua to identify coastal waters of particular interest to them.

Policy 22 of the NZCPS 2010 directs the management and control of sedimentation in the coastal marine area.

Policy 23 NZCPS 2010 directs the management of contaminant discharges to water in the coastal environment. Policy 23 particularly discourages the discharge of human sewage in the coastal environment without treatment.

For further guidance on water quality see the Ministry for the Environment information on the water quality (including the National Policy Statement for Freshwater Management 2011) and the NZCPS Implementation guidance.

Managing discharges

Existing and new coastal land development can have a significant impact on water quality and ecosystems in the coastal marine area if discharges to the coast are not well managed. Discharges may impact on the mauri (life essence or life-supporting capacity) of coastal water, coastal biodiversity, recreational activities, marine farming and the relationship that tangata whenua have with the coast. Discharges from coastal land development that impact on coastal water quality include things like sediment from vegetation clearance/earthworks (see the Earthworks Guidance Note) and heavy metals/toxins and agricultural run-off; wastewater, including sewage; and stormwater.

Discharges from coastal land development can be broadly categorised as being either point source discharges (from a discrete source) or non-point source discharges (from diffuse sources). Common examples of point source discharges include:

  • stormwater from reticulated networks, runoff from roofs, roads and car parks
  • wastewater containing community sewage - older treatment systems may not have been designed to cope with development or seasonal influxes of visitors
  • leachate from landfills and other contaminated sites
  • industrial by-products, such as cooling water, and process chemicals
  • agricultural by-products, such as dairy shed effluent irrigation by-wash, such as canal and border-dyke return outlets.

Common examples of non-point source discharges include:

  • irrigation or rainfall runoff from agricultural land containing contaminants such as fertiliser, animal faeces, and eroding soil
  • runoff from horticultural land containing contaminants such as fertiliser, chemical sprays, and rotting produce
  • runoff from forestry land containing contaminants such as eroding soil, chemical sprays, and debris
  • runoff from mining areas containing contaminants such as eroding soil and rock
  • stormwater from areas that are not reticulated.

Coastal land development can increase the amount of eroded sediment discharged into waterways and increase the amount of toxins in coastal waters through discharges from marinas and boat anti-fouling treatments and agricultural by-products, such as dairy shed effluent. Coastal water quality may be contaminated through hydrocarbons from the increasing number of vehicles operating within or near the coast. Toxins harm coastal biodiversity as they can accumulate in marine sediments and subsequently get released when the seabed is disturbed.

Wastewater treatment systems associated with new and existing coastal land uses require careful management in terms of their location, suitability and capacity. Nutrients from poor performing or poorly maintained wastewater treatment systems can discharge into the coast and have significant adverse effects on water quality.

Existing and new coastal land uses can result in an increase in contaminants being discharged in stormwater. Coastal development may also result in a concentration of stormwater in certain areas. For example, an increase in sealed access ways and carparks can inhibit the distribution of stormwater and concentrate discharges into runoff areas within the coastal environment. Careful planning is needed to maintain stormwater and sewage reticulation systems especially their capacity in extreme weather events.

Policy 23 of the NZCPS 2010 about the discharge of contaminants, including human sewage, provides a strong signal against discharges of untreated human sewage into water in the coastal environment. There is further guidance on the Department of Conservation website regarding discharges of untreated human sewage.


Coastal developments, earthworks, vegetation clearance, and so on can result in increased sediment loadings discharging into coastal waters. Sedimentation comes from urban and rural land uses and impacts on ecological values. Sedimentation is a threat to inter-tidal waters, estuaries, wetlands and overall coastal water quality. It can smother benthic communities and significantly adversely affect natural habitats and ecosystems. Many iwi are finding it difficult to source their traditional mahinga kai resources due to sedimentation affecting their wetlands, estuaries and harbours.

Protecting the mauri of coastal waters

Water has high spiritual, social and cultural value to tangata whenua. Coastal water quality is important for the health of kaimoana and the mauri of the coastal environment. Coastal discharges can have adverse cultural impacts on tangata whenua, with associated impacts on customary values and uses of the coast such as contaminating areas valued for mahinga kai. Avoiding the direct discharge of contaminants into coastal waters is particularly important to tangata whenua. Discharge to land that does not exceed the carrying capacity of that land is often seen as the best option for avoiding impacts of discharges on the mauri of coastal waters.

Managing coastal hazards

Risks from coastal hazards are a widespread and national scale issue in New Zealand. The risks of harm could escalate unless action is taken to prevent the likelihood and consequences of coastal hazard events increasing in the future. Coastal erosion, coastal flooding, and tsunami are all natural coastal processes which become hazards where they pose a threat to human property and/or life. The risk from coastal hazards is being exacerbated by sea-level rise and other climate change related influences on land development at the coastal margins and from people protecting their property from coastal processes.

There is a risk-based approach to coastal hazard management in the NZCPS 2010 (see policies 24-27). This reflects well-established international best practice for natural hazard management. This approach is reinforced by the requirement to apply a precautionary approach to address climate change and its uncertain, but potentially significant, adverse effects (NZCPS 2010, Policy 3). All coastal hazard policies flow from Objective 5 in the NZCPS 2010.

Policy 24 of the NZCPS 2010 lays the foundation for risk-based coastal hazard management. Hazard-prone coastal areas are to be identified, and the hazard risks in those areas comprehensively assessed. Priority is to be given to areas which have a high probability of being affected by coastal hazards. Hazard risks are to be assessed over at least 100 years, in order to provide the information necessary for sustainable management in accord with Policy 25 and Policy 27. Risk is defined as both likelihood and consequences, and the policy specifies both the hazard and development parameters that are to be considered as part of hazard risk assessments. National guidance and the best available information are to be used in these assessments.

Policy 25 of the NZCPS 2010 is the core policy on coastal hazards. It sets the goal of containing or reducing the risk of social, environmental and economic harm from those hazards. It also contains the more detailed policy related to redevelopment and changes in land use (which includes new development), and some of the more general policy on infrastructure, hard protection structures, and tsunami.

Policy 26 of the NZCPS 2010 seeks the protection, restoration or enhancement of natural defences as a preferred way to protect the full range of coastal uses and values from coastal hazards.

For hazard-prone coastal areas where there is already significant existing development, Policy 27 of the NZCPS 2010 sets out a range of options that should be assessed for reducing coastal hazard risk. The policy then gives direction on the evaluation of those options.

Coastal hazards are also dealt with in Policy 3(2) of the NZCPS 2010 which specifically requires a precautionary approach for coastal resources potentially vulnerable to effects from climate change.

More detail on coastal hazards and climate change, and methods to avoid or reduce coastal hazard risk, can be found in the NZCPS Implementation guidance, Coastal Adaptation to Climate Change, Pathways to Change, Coastal Hazards and Climate Change Manual and Natural Hazards Guidance.

Protecting coastal assets

New Zealand has a long coastline and a lot of development has occurred in coastal areas, including in hazard-prone areas. Intensified coastal development a few decades ago has led to increased coastal property values. Coastal hazards pose a substantial risk of harm to coastal development. Coastal hazards can lead to economic, social and environmental harm, especially if inappropriate hazard responses are chosen.

Risk based management and the need for expert assessment of risk

Risk-based management is now the international norm for natural hazard management. It is particularly appropriate where both the likelihood and consequences of natural hazard events will potentially increase but there can be no certainty over how much they will increase. Coastal hazard assessments and precautionary risk-based management are complex, and both require good information and methodologies and will often involve experts. Harm can arise either from the coastal hazard events themselves or from the way that the community responds to the threat of coastal hazard events. Sustainable coastal hazard management is primarily the management of community responses to the threat of coastal hazard events.

Uncertainty over climate change effects

In future, accelerating climate change effects are likely to lead to more severe and extensive coastal hazards. There continues to be a lot of uncertainty over how severe climate change effects will be. It is possible that more severe wind and rain events will significantly worsen coastal hazards within a few generations. Adaptation to coastal hazards has substantial barriers, such as short-term adaptation costs; inadequate community awareness and understanding; uncertainty and skepticism; and a political reluctance to consider long-term timeframes. This makes it difficult to shift to a new paradigm for managing potentially hazard-prone coastal land.