'We're taking this seriously' - Rising seas endanger popular Kiwi coastal walks

Some of the country's key destinations are at risk of washing away as a result of sea level rise.

A first of its kind report by the Department of Conservation has assessed the risk that flooding from the sea poses to its coastal locations, including the popular but increasingly vulnerable Abel Tasman National Park.

Cyclone Fehi re-landscaped many of its bays last year; destroying parts of the track and burying shelters, picnic tables and a sewage system in metres of sand.

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Among the areas increasingly vulnerable to climate change and rising sea levels is Abel Tasman National Park. Source: 1 NEWS

Coastal erosion has also seen the closure of the Tonga Quarry campsite, which lost five metres of camping platform to the ocean.

It's the kind of extreme event that could put hundreds of DOC sites in harm's way.

Stairs damaged in Cyclone Fehi in Abel Tasman National Park Source: 1 NEWS

The report highlights the number of archaeological sites, picnic areas and campgrounds, recreational spots and special ecosystems that are vulnerable to sea level rise. 

Conservation Minister Eugenie Sage told 1 NEWS the department is “taking sea level seriously”.

"We've got responsibilities under the New Zealand coastal policies statement to protect the natural character of the coast, to respond to the sea.

“The sites are in their hundreds and so it is looking at how do we plan proactively, for increasing sea level rise, for retreat in areas where that's needed and for protection in areas where that's a decision with the community or with iwi,” she said.

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Among the findings, 62 key destinations have potential for coastal inundation. Seven of them, which are seen to support the growth of domestic and international tourism, may have moderate to high potential vulnerability.  This means being at risk of damage to structures like huts, bridges and tracks.

  • Abel Tasman Coast Track
  • Rangitoto Summit and Short Walks
  • Milford Sound
  • Kāpiti Island Nature Reserve
  • Cape Reinga Coastal Track
  • Ship Cove
  • North Head

Around half the tracks in Milford Sound are considered vulnerable.


The document also outlines where DOC may see potential impacts on some endangered and native species in the coastal environment.

DOC Motueka Operations Manager Mark Townsend says over time he has seen the death of mature Kanuka along the sand spits of  Abel Tasman. "They just can’t cope with the level of salt."

Next steps

There'll now be detailed, on-the-ground assessments to determine the true risk associated with each area before further action is taken.

In Abel Tasman, this work has already begun. 

A refuge area has been created at the Onetahuti campsite so people can seek higher ground, while DOC also looks to relocate the Bark Bay camp. 

Mr Townsend says they now have an emergency response plan in place. “We monitor the king tides, we monitor the weather.  If need be, we close the camps and evacuate people”.

Total cost

The full cost of the work is yet to be calculated, but Cyclones Fehi and Gita have alone cost the department $2.8 million.

Report author Andrew Tait says as the sea level rises over the next several decades, the risk will “gradually increase”.

“So I think it’s something that we need to start tackling now, but it will be an ongoing process for, I'd say, at least two or three decades.”

Apart from the changing coastline, the risk assessment will also serve as a template for future flooding, drought and fire hazards.

The full report can be found here.