A dramatic drop in Northland’s drowning toll is due in part to a new strategy of identifying hotspots and working with locals to come up with local solutions, a leading water safety advocate says.

The region’s provisional drowning toll for 2023 currently stands at four, an almost 80% decrease from the 18 deaths recorded a year earlier.

It is a remarkable turnaround for a region which was usually one of the worst affected in the country, due to its long coastline, love of water sports, and reliance on kaimoana.

Last year’s total was, however, expected to increase to five once the death of a diver near Ahipara just before Christmas was confirmed.

Water Safety New Zealand chief executive Daniel Gerrard welcomed Northland’s sharp reduction in drownings.

“You can’t take one point in time as a trend, but we really do believe that such a dramatic drop-off must have to do with individuals really starting to take personal responsibility,” he said.

Gerrard believed a new approach of working with Surf Lifesaving New Zealand and Coastguard to focus on drowning hotspots was also paying off.

Once hotspots were identified, with the help of Water Safety’s new data team, the three groups worked together to talk to local residents, understand local problems, and come up with local solutions.

One example was in the Hokianga Harbour, where boats capsizing while crossing the bar at the harbour entrance — with sometimes fatal results — used to be commonplace.

“It kind of became normalised. What we wanted to do, and got Coastguard to look at, was to offer bar crossing courses and day skipper courses to really help boaties in the Hokianga get across that bar safely and make safety the new norm.”

Waipū, where crab fishers from Auckland used to drown in alarming numbers every New Year’s break, was another success story.

Even with the greatly reduced drowning toll, one activity stood out — three of the four confirmed fatalities occurred while the person was diving for kaimoana.

The fourth occurred while kayak fishing.

“Underwater kai gathering really does seem to be a challenge, and that’s around the country. In these tight economic times, people are making riskier choices to go out gathering kai,” Gerrard said.

“I think we need to acknowledge people are going out to put food on the table, rather than necessarily just going out to have fun on the water. That poses a whole lot of different risk scenarios and different ways to manage that risk.”

Gerrard said the approach of identifying hotspots and coming up with locally driven solutions, rather than blanket national campaigns, could be applied elsewhere around the country.

“I think Northland has proven that having those conversations is a really good starting point to understanding what the problem is, and working out a solution together.”

Nationally, last year’s provisional drowning toll was 90, slightly down on the 94 recorded in 2022 but still higher than the 10-year average of 82.

Gerrard said the Northland result was welcome news to anyone involved in water safety.

“There’s no question that the loss of 90 lives last year has had a significant impact on all those families and I think the water safety community also gets hit pretty hard by all the bad news. So to see something like we’ve seen in Northland last year is really encouraging and shows there are some opportunities to really make a difference,” he said.

“That’s what motivates us and gets us out of bed, and hopefully, we will one day do ourselves out of a job.”

Another Northland-specific safety initiative was born out of the drowning of Wairongoa “Magoo” Renata, who died saving his children at Cable Bay in 2018.

Operation Flotation, founded by one of Renata’s relatives, works to install rescue buoys at beaches around the country, for use in situations like the one he found himself in.

By Peter de Graaf of rnz.co.nz