New Zealand's largest export port is placing restrictions on operations after becoming fully stretched by overflow business from the Auckland waterfront dispute.
"Our 'can do' attitude has truly been tested - we have reached saturation point," Port of Tauranga commercial manager Graeme Marshall said in a bulletin to customers.
That meant his port was unable to accept any more vessels from shipping lines wanting to bypass Auckland, where only a reduced number of imported containers are being handled by non-union labour, as 235 unionised workers go through their fourth week on strike.
Mr Marshall also warned his customers to expect up to eight more weeks of disruption.
With Tauranga's inland MetroPort rail staging post in the Auckland industrial suburb of Southdown working on overload, he announced extra notice periods for exporters delivering freight to ships.
Trains bringing imported goods from Tauranga to Auckland will also have to be reduced from six to five a day to alleviate traffic congestion from trucks queuing to collect supplies from MetroPort.
Although the strike has been felt hardest by importers, who are shelling out millions of extra dollars to bring containers to Auckland from other ports as far away as the South Island, the bulletin indicated trouble ahead for exports as well.
Mr Marshall said the Auckland port company's restriction of container operations to imports, which are being handled by about 50 non-union workers and management staff, was severely restricting the movement of empty containers by coastal shipping.
Empty containers are needed by exporters around the country, but he also said his organisation had stopped accepting them at MetroPort, except by special arrangement for rail transport to Tauranga.
Meanwhile, power generators were being used at Tauranga to cope with the extra loads, which resulted in a record of 20,200 container movements last week compared with a normal throughput of 11,000 to 13,000 containers.
Despite the extra business, for which more staff have been put on duty, Mr Marshall said limits on yard space and other factors such as the cancellation of trains carrying export containers from MetroPort meant average productivity dropped last week.
It was down from 35.5 moves an hour per crane to 30.3 moves, which is still higher than Auckland's normal rate of about 28.
Tauranga port company chief executive Mark Cairns said the bulletin was meant to assist customers rather than to "stir up" the Auckland dispute, over which the Employment Court will hold a "judicial settlement conference" on Monday to consider a claim by the Maritime Union that plans to contract out 292 jobs are unlawful.
Mr Cairns said KiwiRail was working hard to keep the extra freight flowing between Auckland and Tauranga and had added an extra export train for Fonterra dairy products.
Importers' Institute secretary Daniel Silva said importers were still managing to overcome supply disruptions, but at considerable cost, such as an extra $2150 charged to bring double-length containers back to Auckland by rail from a ship which was diverted to Lyttelton.
Foodstuffs Auckland said it was working hard to replenish stocks at its supermarkets, which include Pak 'n Save and New World stores, by recovering freight from Tauranga and Wellington.
Progressive Enterprises, which owns the Countdown supermarket chain, said customers should not notice any difference in stock levels at present, although if the strike continued "it could become more difficult".
Facebook site targets boss
Ports of Auckland is standing by its chief executive as a Facebook campaign calls for his sacking.
The campaigners have set up a page on the social networking site called "Sack Tony Gibson, the Three-Quarters of a Million Dollar Man."
"He 'earns' $750,000 a year. Four hundred bucks an hour. Twice as much as the Prime Minister," says a post by the instigator of the page, which by last night had attracted 363 "likes".
Mr Gibson did not comment on the campaign, but port company chairman Richard Pearson said personal attacks on his chief executive did no credit to the Maritime Union, which has denied responsibility for the Facebook campaign.
"Tony's salary is an appropriate market rate for a CEO running a large asset of this type and is irrelevant to the dispute," Mr Pearson said.
He said salary information was on the company's website, which puts its top-earning employee in an annual earnings band of $580,000 to $590,000. According to www.poal.co.nz that includes bonuses paid since July 1 last year.
Aucklander Peter Malcouronne later confirmed the Facebook campaign was his doing.By Mathew Dearnaley Email Mathew