The crunch has come for Westport harbour, which loses its main customer when Holcim closes its Westport cement works next month.

Seven jobs would go and Westport's dredge Kawatiri and tug Bob Gower would go into care and maintenance from June 30, Buller Holdings Ltd (BHL) said today.

Holcim's cement shipping generates over 80 per cent of Westport Harbour Ltd's (WHL's) revenue and all the revenue for dredging the Buller River.

WHL is a subsidiary of BHL, which operates the Buller District Council's trading enterprises.


BHL chief executive Stephen Lowe said five dredge crew and two engineers would lose their jobs. Two dredge crew and the harbourmaster Mike Graham would stay on.

They would ensure the dredge and tug remained operational and could be used immediately if any new trade opportunities turned up.

BHL hoped the redundant staff, who were highly experienced, would stay in Buller so a crew could be found at short notice if needed, Mr Lowe said.

He confirmed they would be available in October/November this year, when the Kawatiri had a contract to dredge in Nelson.

No work elsewhere

Mr Lowe said WHL had so far found no other work elsewhere for the Kawatiri. Most New Zealand ports were looking at accommodating bigger vessels, he said.

"If they go to bigger vessels they would require dredging to 17m, which we can't do."

The council owns both the dredge and the tug and leases them to WHL, which has been a strong contributor to council's coffers. WHL recorded a $332,000 profit last year, but it is forecasting an operating loss of $1.9 million next year.

The council released a statement today saying the council planned to put the vessels into care and maintenance while commercial opportunities were sought for them.

The council had budgeted to spend up to $1.9 million over the next three years retaining them.

Buller Mayor Garry Howard had approached every council with a port in New Zealand seeking work for the Kawatiri, the statement said.

"All possible options are still being considered and while Nelson is the only signed contract at present, there are still viable options that may result in further contracts in the future."

Kawatiri was one of the most efficient dredges in the country when it operated in a shallow port with a nearby dumping ground, such as in Westport and Nelson.

Buller District Council would look, in conjunction with the West Coast Regional Council, at measuring the impact of no regular dredging on Westport's flood risk from the Buller River, the statement said.

"Work on possible flood protection measures for Westport is already taking place and the impact of dredging is part of this work."

During the Kawatiri's absence the Bob Gower would monitor the bar.

"It is possible dredging will still take place in Westport, when required, to enable the larger fishing vessels to unload there."

The council and WHL had opted for "the most prudent course of action" for the port.

"But it is our intention that council will review this on an annual basis to ensure that we explore every opportunity available to keep a viable port here in Westport."

BHL chairman Brian Wood told The News last year that WHL was talking to Lyttelton Port Company and Port Otago about work for the dredge.

Mr Wood said today that said both Lyttelton and Otago were still prospects, but nothing had eventuated so far.

"These are things that aren't going to happen overnight - that's the issue."

Westport harbour needed a local industry of some sort to support it, as Holcim and Solid Energy had done, he said.

Commercial opportunities elsewhere for the Bob Gower were extremely limited, as it was really a "glorified pilot launch".

- Westport News