Responding to importers' calls for help, Northport is talking to shipping lines about how it could ease Auckland's port imports logjam, a predicament it says highlights Northland's importance in a strong supply chain.
Chairman Murray Jagger said the natural, deepwater port south of Whangarei has the capability now, and the potential for growth, to support a resilient upper North Island freight network and that's been reinforced by the congestion at Auckland and its spillover to the Port of Tauranga.
Container service at Ports of Auckland continues to be "severely degraded with major delays" according to its website. It also advised the Auckland Council-owned port's vexed, half-implemented automation system had been suspended on Friday due to issues.
Last week ships were waiting up to 10 days to be unloaded at the country's main import port, while ships avoiding Auckland were offloading imports at Port of Tauranga, New Zealand's main export port as it dealt with its busy season.
Tauranga's inland port at south Auckland, Metroport, was full as exporters which would normally use Auckland dropped containers there for railing to Tauranga, and imports returned to Auckland by rail from Tauranga.
Maersk, the world's biggest container shipping line, has warned the congestion will worsen and may not ease until the second quarter of next year. It also expected the import gridlock to make the export season "challenging".
Jagger said Northport had a container terminal and could take the biggest container ships, although unloading would be slowed by having only two big cranes. However frustrated importers had asked the port for help and port staff were working hard to help.
He believed the congestion, attributed to global shipping disruption caused by Covid-19, previous industrial action at Australian ports, and a stevedore labour shortage at Auckland, could "bring to a head" efforts by Northport to get the Auckland and Tauranga ports seriously talking about a collaborative plan for a resilient upper North Island supply chain. The Government needed to be part of the discussion too, he said.
Now the political debate around relocating Auckland's CBD port to Northland had gone, Northport was prepared to talk about its growth plans and aspirations, Jagger said.
These included preparing consent applications for a shipyard and drydock to serve as national marine infrastructure. The project was estimated to cost up to $300 million and would create 400 fulltime skilled jobs and support businesses.
"We have decided to pursue that project. We have a window of opportunity now. If we do nothing I suggest we will look back with regret. We believe this is a really important national and regional infrastructure project."
Northport is also keen to lure the New Zealand naval base, which would bring another 600 jobs to Northland. Relocation of the Navy's home at Devonport has long been mooted, and Defence has said a business case was expected before Christmas. Picton is another contender.
While Northport had plenty of greenfield development land, it would not own or operate the proposed new shipyard and drydock. It would need Government funding and discussions were under way with politicians on both sides of the House, along with the Northland community, Jagger said.
"Someone in Government needs to be the person who drives it with evidence why this is going to work to make it really compelling."
Northport, jointly owned by listed companies Marsden Marine Holdings, which has Ports of Auckland as a 20 per cent shareholder, and Port of Tauranga, hoped to file the RMA consent applications next year. The applications include Northport's own land development plans but its board had made no formal decision to proceed with expansion and it was premature to discuss expenditure, Jagger said.
It was important to understand Northport did not support the idea of relocating Auckland's port north, and did not believe the upper North Island needed a new port, as suggested by recent reports, he said.
"We aim to be supportive of Auckland and collaborate and cooperate with Auckland in terms of assisting with their congestion. We do support (discussion on) what part we can play in supply chain resilience and assisting Auckland in the situation it's under."
Jagger said small coastal vessels could be used to take freight south as an alternative to road.
But the shipyard project - because it was of national significance - would also stimulate transport network development to link Northland and Auckland, such as advancing the highway four-laning proposition.
"We think strategically this is an important project to pursue because of the strategic changes (it would make) to the supply chain."
Jagger said Northport had reassured the community no dredging was planned. A previous dredging proposal had been the Marsden Point oil refinery's, not the port's, and the refinery was now being restructured.
"For the community that's important to know. That project's been parked while the refinery looks at a new model."
"We can cope with any vessel - even the big ones - without dredging."
The shipyard and drydock project had not made the cut in the state's "shovel-ready" project programme but Jagger said post-election, the Government was saying it wanted to support infrastructure and job creation.
"Since the 60s the refinery has been the golden goose for Whangarei and skilled labour force employment opportunities.
"Now it is retrenching back to being a distribution centre....it won't have the same level of impact.
"I believe Northport and a shipyard close to Northport will become the new golden goose for the north."