Living with the harbour

The dredge New Era sails into a red dawn on Otago Harbour. Photo: Stephen Jaquiery
The dredge New Era sails into a red dawn on Otago Harbour. Photo: Stephen Jaquiery

At times serene, at times stormy, Otago Harbour has long carried the hopes of many. In the final of a three-part series, Shane Gilchrist ponders a range of prevailing factors that could ripple into the future.

Just a couple of kilometres from Taiaroa Head, the northern end of Te Rauone Beach is a surreal place.

Trees that once held firm to soil now sit as stumps on the sand, their bleached limbs incongruous in an area celebrated for all its wild, vibrant life. In front of this backdrop, Graeme Burns begins to draw in the sand.

 The importance of what lies beneath

 Wharf access a balancing act

• Salmon add to the city's allure

The 81-year-old used to play here as a child so his movements offer a symmetry. He's outlining plans he hopes will lead to others enjoying this beloved stretch of beach. They may wish to ponder designs in the sand, too. Or gather cockles. Or fish for flounder, as he once did. Or, simply, go for a walk.

Graeme Burns hopes a breakwater at Te Rauone Beach will help to protect it from the ravages of weather and shipping. Photo: Shane Gilchrist
Graeme Burns hopes a breakwater at Te Rauone Beach will help to protect it from the ravages of weather and shipping. Photo: Shane Gilchrist

''Over the decades I've seen about a third of the beach's length disappear. There are stretches I used to be able to walk at high tide; now I'm unable to even walk those areas at low tide.''

Burns' rough map is of a rock breakwater he hopes will help restore the beach which, over the past 60 years or so, has been ravaged by wind, waves and, according to some, the wakes of increasingly large ships plying the harbour channel.

''There is an issue with the wake from shipping, but there are a range of causes,'' Burns says.

''You can't just point to container ships as the sole source of the problem. Southwesterly winds cause a lot of damage but so, too, do northeasterlies.''

Burns, who lives in Dunedin but has enjoyed a succession of family-owned cribs on Harington Point Rd since childhood, is chairman of the Te Rauone Beach Coast Care Committee.

The committee is a formal partner with Port Otago in the 115m breakwater, as well as a complementary project which would involve Port Otago dredge New Era pumping sand on to the foreshore, ultimately restoring the beach's slope, which would help dissipate the energy of waves.

According to latest estimates, the total cost of the project is about $650,000-$700,000. Under the partnership, the committee will pay for the $300,000 breakwater (so far, it has raised $120,000) and Port Otago will foot the remainder.

It's an example of residents taking charge of their own patch, although the committee members believe the project has implications beyond the Te Rauone community: as well as benefiting estuarine and dune environments, a breakwater could ultimately support a marine ecosystem. The project could also provide further opportunities for fishing, diving, boating and sightseeing, bolstering commercial activities in the area.

Fellow committee member Edna Stevenson is also on the Otago Peninsula Community Board, a proactive group whose efforts range from lobbying the Otago Regional Council to appoint a harbourmaster, to improving navigational markers.

''Our last key priority was road widening,'' she says. ''We've now ticked that off and have made made the Te Rauone project our No.1 priority for this year.''

As tendrils of fog slide down the hills of Otago Peninsula and out towards Otago Harbour, proof of tourism looms in the growing gloom.

A campervan ambles towards Taiaroa Head, followed by another, then another, the visitors likely to be unaware the very surface on which they are travelling has been built at a cost to the marine environment.

As Broad Bay resident, Dunedin city councillor, environmentalist and author Neville Peat points out: ''Ironically, one of the ways we are using the harbour more is by reclaiming it for recreational activities''.

''Of the 46sq km total high-tide 'prism', 8% has been reclaimed. Now we are reclaiming quite a bit more with the widening of the cycleway and roadway,'' he says of the council's Peninsula Road Improvements Projects.

Although recent focus has been on Harington Point Rd (where Burns celebrates the fact he can walk along a new footpath without worrying he'll be struck by one of those many campervans), contracts are soon to be let for work to complete the gaps in a shared cycle-walkway between Vauxhall and Pukekura.

Peat says the DCC is aiming to set up an advisory group to look at ways of mitigating the loss of intertidal rocky habitat as a result of reclamation for the road-widening. Such mitigation might include creating artificial reefs on tidally exposed mudflats, which would blunt wave energy and reduce damage to the sea wall in storms.

''The marine life in the inter-tidal zones is food for oyster-catchers and other birds. I'd like to see the creation of artificial reefs within the harbour, where there are exposed mudflats.''

Bigger vessels

As Port Otago chief executive Geoff Plunkett has signalled, by the middle of next year the Otago Harbour channel will have been dredged to a depth of 14m. 

Port Otago chief executive Geoff Plunket. Photo: Peter McIntosh
Port Otago chief executive Geoff Plunket. Photo: Peter McIntosh

This follows Port Otago's completion of the first stage of its ''Next Generation'' harbour-deepening programme to 13.5m, allowing recent visits by sister ships Laust Maersk and Lars Maersk which, at more than 260m long and 36m wide and with a departure draft of 13.3m, were the deepest container vessels to sail from New Zealand waters since such ships were first introduced 35 years ago.

Cruise ships, too, are getting bigger. Included in a projected 25% rise (to 91) in cruise ship visits for the 2016-17 season is the expected arrival on December 22 of Ovation of the Seas. At 347.7m long, it would be 30m longer than any other ship to visit Otago Harbour.

But back to container vessels. Both Laust Maersk and Lars Maersk had a capacity of 4500 TEU (20-foot equivalent units or, in layperson's terms, containers). Yet Port Otago has consent to deepen the channel to 15m, allowing 8000TEU vessels to make their way to Port Chalmers.

In order to do so, Port Otago has consent to dredge 7.2 million cubic metres of harbour floor. However, unlike the last major channel-deepening programme in 1976, when the container terminal opened at Port Chalmers, the current and ongoing process is more incremental, using the company's dredge, New Era.

According to some scientific sources, the harbour took up to 20 years to recover from the dredging that took place in the 1970s. Certainly, the effects of that dredging programme informed the concerns raised by various parties about Port Otago's resource consent application: more than 200 submissions (75%) were in opposition.

"About eight years ago, we set about putting in place the consents we thought we'd need for the next 25 years,'' Plunket says.

''It took us five and a-half years to get consent [in 2011]. We always knew it was going to take time.

''A lot of your readers will say, `well, here we are developing the harbour; surely the only way to protect the harbour is to have no development'.

''That's the dilemma for us. We need a viable, well-functioning port. So we have to develop but, on the other hand, we are focused on ensuring that development is done in a sustainable way.''

[Port Otago, for which meat and dairy exports account for approximately 62% of its exports, recently posted a half-year after-tax profit of $5.48 million and expects to pay a yearly dividend of $7.3 million to its 100% owner, the Otago Regional Council. Since the ORC took full ownership of Port Otago Ltd in 1988, it has received more than $144 million in dividends and expects to get a further $80 million through to 2024-25.]

Customary fishing reserve plan

In a process that would test the most patient of fisher folk, local Maori (and other interested parties) are still awaiting news of a proposed customary fishing reserve in Otago Harbour.

The Otakou runanga applied to the Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI) to establish a mataitai reserve to manage all non-commercial fishing in the harbour in 2008. Eight years on, it is still in talks with MPI.

As part of its application, Te Runanga o Otakou initially allowed six areas used for commercial purposes to continue; this was later amended to exclude two additional areas, subject to a special permit granted to Southern Clams Ltd to investigate the ecosystem effects of commercial clam harvesting in Otago Harbour.

''The Ministry of Primary Industries is wanting to meet with us this month to clarify a few points. We aren't totally clear on what they want,'' says runanga kaumatua Edward Ellison. We hope it will be approved this year as it's been a long time coming.''

[The Otago Daily Times sought clarification from MPI on when a decision on the mataitai might be expected, as well as an update on Southern Clams' special permit. Dave Turner, MPI fisheries management director, responded: ''Both of these issues are being progressed as quickly as possible. As MPI is still progressing both matters it is not possible to comment further at this time.'']

''The harbour has always been important to Ngai Tahu. It has been a lifeline, a food source, a waterway. It is very much a part of our lives,'' says Ellison, who has farmed ancestral lands at Otakou for 30 years and been involved in resource management in a variety of capacities.

''Within the mataitai application, there are areas set aside to allow current commercial activity to continue. However, there is a reluctance among our people to allow an expansion of Southern Clams' activity.''

Abundant on the intertidal sand flats of Otago Harbour, the New Zealand littleneck clam (otherwise known as a cockle or tuaki), has a history of exploitation that dates back to the beginning of human settlement in this region.

''Otakou is known for its tuaki,'' Ellison says, adding his great-grandmother, Nani, was fed on the juice of cockles after her mother, Nikuru, died in childbirth.

The shellfish supplies both sustenance and status. For example, the dense cockle beds near the entrance of Otago Harbour contribute to the mana of the adjacent marae.

''When we had a hui, our people gave a very clear message: they want the tuaki protected; they don't want to see it commercialised.''

Roger Belton, managing director of Southern Clams, clearly does.

''My perspective is Otago Harbour is more than just a shipping lane and a port. There is plenty of room for multiple use, from commercial to recreational to customary.

''Let's be honest. There are tensions. But we are all about transparency. We have nothing to hide and everything to demonstrate. After 30 years of experience, I can confidently say, beyond reasonable doubt, we have a very resilient resource and that Dunedin could prosper from this.''

German academic Jan Wilhelm says while Dunedin should work towards a stronger connection with its harbour, the industrial character of the area should  not be lost. Photo: Peter McIntosh
German academic Jan Wilhelm says while Dunedin should work towards a stronger connection with its harbour, the industrial character of the area should not be lost. Photo: Peter McIntosh

Despite MPI's non-disclosure, Belton says Southern Clams recently had its special permit extended by two years, meaning its harbour operation is now a seven-year project.

''The research we are doing in the middle banks of Otago Harbour looks at the impact of harvesting in a 180ha area. That's 3.6% of the total harbour area; it's a tiny bit.

''We have been doing this in a very rigorous, controlled manner; we've committed three-quarters of a million dollars to this research. We don't do that lightly'' Belton says.

''In Otago we do have the best clam resource in the country. At Blueskin Bay, where we've been working for 30 years, the standing stock is greater now than when we started.

''Just imagine if you had a company. Do you want its value to decrease or increase over time? And how do you make it decrease if it's based on a primary resource? Well, you'd abuse it and you just go for it. Or do you try to enhance the resilience of what you are doing?

''It's really quite simple. I'm not interested in the next year. I'm interested in the long game,'' says Belton, adding his company plans to reapply for consent to operate a marine farm on Otago Harbour.

[Southern Clams' third attempt to secure consent for a marine farm was denied last year by the Otago Regional Council, because of a lack of information. The company had hoped to farm in three locations, spread over 20ha, finishing off two-year-old oysters farmed by the New Zealand Bluff Oyster Co in Bluff Harbour.]

Better connections  

At the Steamer Basin, the morning sun's rays are low enough to render boats in silhouette. Disturbed by a northeasterly that increases in strength, a clutch of yachts and other pleasure craft bob expectantly on the choppy surface.

Striding around the area is Jan Wilhelm who, at the invitation of the University of Otago, recently held a two-day think-tank focusing on how Dunedin's innercity might improve its relationship with Otago Harbour.

He takes a dozen or so strides before pausing near the northern edge of the former Otago Harbour Board building, where he jumps from one path to another, about 60cm below, then stops. His progress has been interrupted. That's part of his point: the connection between structures and harbour seems weak.

The German academic was not interested in looking at existing plans for the Dunedin waterfront (although he had researched various historic, recent and current proposals, ranging from apartments, hotels, canals and bridges, to an aquarium and revamped area south of the Steamer Basin).

Nor was he keen to compare Dunedin with other harbourside projects, be they in this country or further afield.

Instead, his visit aimed to offer a framework in which participants could view this juncture of city and water in a fresh way.

''The idea is to just focus on what we see, feel and sense when we are near the harbour. Of course, this is only one approach. We aren't attempting to find complete solutions; it's just one angle in dealing with the issues. It might bring up some new ideas.''

A level crossing between the Chinese Garden and Wharf St is one such possibility, he says. Another is shifting the pedestrian bridge near the southern end of Dunedin Railway Station to the end of Fryatt St.

''The two-day lab attracted an interesting mix of people. There was a property manager, a property developer, a city councillor, landscape architects, a planning consultant and a student. There were people who grew up in Dunedin; some who had moved here ...

''The thing is, I'm leaving. But there is so much interest in what to do here.

''I really love this area. This harbourside area is alive, but it seems disconnected from the rest of the city. It is so nice to see the working character of this place. I would recommend retaining that industrial character because, in so many places, that has been lost.

''To explain further, it is important that ships continue visiting, that industry carries on. The city needs to be careful in what it does. It's not about big solutions; it's about trying, step by step, to keep the links to the past while improving the physical connection and access of the city to the harbour.''

Wilhelm walks further north, crossing from the wide concrete boulevard to the boardwalk adjacent to Fryatt St Wharf, near where a couple of men are preparing rods they hope will soon bend with the weight of a salmon.

''Look down,'' he implores, delighting in the wash of green found in the gaps between boards.

''Look there,'' he says, pointing to the orange form of Italian-registered icebreaker Italica, resting thousands of kilometres from the Antarctic; yet another reminder of how this roughly 22km-long sliver of water connects the city to oceans, to the world.

There is another view, too.

It is of water creeping into the dark spaces beyond piles, as if it wishes to once again inundate what has long been turned to land.



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