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Container shipping giant Maersk says it is abandoning Port Taranaki -- the North Island's main west coast port.
The announcement comes 10 years after including the port in a new service to North and Latin America, and making it the final New Zealand port of call for a service to the hub port of Tanjung Pelepas in Malaysia.
In 2001, Maersk Sealand said New Plymouth would not only handle exports from Taranaki and the lower North Island, but also potentially dairy product from Waikato, and port managers described the announcements as a "real reversal of fortunes".
Those fortunes came to an end today when Maersk's New Zealand managing director Julian Bevis blamed a steady decline in cargo volumes for the port being dropped.
Cargo sending through the New Plymouth port had dropped since Fonterra cut throughput from its Whareora plant near Hawera to the port by 65 percent in August 2009 -- then estimated to be a loss of about 22,000 containers a year from the port's 65,000 containers handled in 2008-2009.
A decade ago, the port was handling about 8000 containers a year.
Mr Bevis said the Danish shipping line had changed its trans-Tasman schedules to switch to Lyttelton instead of New Plymouth.
This was despite Taranaki Regional Council ratepayers -- who own the port -- spending $20 million in 2007 on dredging to allow it to serve larger container vessels, such as the Maersk Duffield, the 45,803 gross tonne container carrier that, at 289 metres, was the longest vessel to call there.
Port Taranaki handles 0.7 percent of the nation's sea freight imports by value (2.4 percent by weight) and 7.8 percent of the value of sea freight exports (12.2 percent by weight).
The Productivity Commission is already investigating international freight services and has questions whether there is an imbalance in "bargaining power" between ports and shipping companies.
"Ports depend on shipping companies using them to justify investment in facilities and to earn a satisfactory financial return," the commission said this month.
In 2006 --when Maersk controlled about 40 percent of the New Zealand market -- it said it wanted to drop four ports and just call at two primary ports and three secondary ones.
It shifted the focus of its port calls from Tauranga to Auckland, and two years later, Maersk cancelled 104 annual ship calls at Otago's port, where it had been the largest customer.