New signage for non-English speakers needed to stop deaths

5:43 pm on 18 July 2018

There are fears the number of people drowning at New Zealand beaches will rise if more is not done to raise awareness of the dangers.

Muriwai Beach the day after a Burmese couple drowned while fishing off the rocks.

The rocks at Muriwai where a Burmese couple drowned. Photo: RNZ / Dan Cook

On Monday, a Burmese couple fishing off that rock were swept away.

Kay Dah Ukay and Mu Thu Pa leave 9 children behind.

The couple, who regularly fished in the area, had walked past warning signs at the beach detailing the dangers of fishing in the area.

But even if they had seen the signs, they would not have understood them - they did not speak English well.

Volunteer lifeguard Tim Jago said despite Monday's tragedy, conditions had been business as usual at Muriwai - but the area was often deceptive.

"Even on the good days, when you've got nice tidy, moderate surf rolling in, there are rips and currents that to the untrained eye, aren't apparent.

"We've got big tidal movements as well, which catch people unaware and then of course, you've got the rocks."

To the untrained eye, the rocks scream adventure, Mr Jago said.

"They've got an algal bloom on them which makes them treacherously slippery. They are an uneven platform and so we get more than our fair share of people who simply fall off the rocks because they slip."

Kay Dah Ukay (right) and his wife Mu Thu Pa (left). The couple, who were not wearing lifejackets, died after being swept off rocks while fishing at Muriwai.

Photo: Supplied

Today the tourists on the beach - German, Chinese and Japanese - couldn't speak English. Yet, the warning signs and even the signs detailing the minimum size limits for the fish caught in the area are written only in English.

According to Mr Jago the debate about what languages should feature on the Muriwai signs proved too difficult to resolve.

Jonty Mills, from Water Safety New Zealand, said with increased numbers of tourists and new migrants it was vital people knew about the dangers on beaches.

"Unless we do something collectively as a country - and I'm talking at community level, at personal responsibility level, and central and local government level, then we will see a rise in drowning fatalities."

Between 2006 and 2015, an Auckland University study found seven percent of all drowning fatalities in New Zealand were the consequence of land-based fishing.

It found only 19 percent of people fishing on the west coast of Auckland were Pākehā-European but 52 percent were Asian.

Surf Life Saving New Zealand services and education manager Allan Mundy said despite the increase in population and tourist numbers, accidents on New Zealand beaches had not spiked.

But that did not mean more should not be done to increase safety, he said.

"We rely heavily on the volunteers who help make those beaches and those coastlines safe, not just us and Surf Life Saving, but also Coast Guard, and that's something I think is our biggest risk, is those volunteers get disengaged," he said.

Following Monday's accident, the Burmese community have offered to make updated warning signs in their language for Muriwai Beach.

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