Northport processes shipments from all over the world while the spectre of Covid-19 continues to stalk New Zealand's borders.
New Zealanders are enjoying the freedoms of life at level 1, but staff inside the port continue to take the security of the border extremely seriously - there's no tolerance for Kiwi "staunchness".
Commercial manager David Finchett said biosecurity and the risks associated with exotic diseases are nothing new for staff. But the danger to humans because of the highly infectious nature of Covid-19 has added another level to health and security measures at the port, which is taking expert advice from the Ministry of Health via the Northland District Health Board.
Staff and supporting businesses have to remain highly disciplined and vigilant and are following strict protocols, he said.
"Ships have always been required to provide advance notice of arrival information, which covers a wide range of details about the ship and crew, including comprehensive biosecurity, customs and health information, including previous ports visited.
Subject to no health concerns, the ship will gain quarantine clearance or "free pratique" from the health board. "Since early 2020, all ports in New Zealand have put in place considerable, additional Covid-19 measures," Finchett said.
Pilots and stevedores working with arriving ships take all precautions, including wearing personal protection equipment, maintaining social distances, transferring information electronically where possible and sanitising machinery to prevent any spread of disease from vessel crew to wharf personnel.
Finchett said if ships were within a 28-day quarantine period, the crew was not allowed to leave the ship in accordance with NZ-wide Ministry of Health rules, apart from specific circumstances and with tight controls in place.
"While ships from many overseas ports will have been travelling for well over two weeks before they get to Northport and some will have already exceeded their 28-day quarantine period, our starting point is to treat all ships as if they had Covid-19 onboard. Unfortunately, some areas in Australia, our closest trading partner, have also just seen the situation there take a turn for the worse,'' he said.
Finchett said we should however be mindful of the "great work" ship crews worldwide are doing at this difficult time, with almost no shore leave or crew changes, longer-than-normal periods away from home and often not being able to leave the relative safety of their ships.
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Finchett said business was more or less back to normal in level 1 after a hectic time in level 4, and a careful return to work at level 3 for many of the port's customers, notably forestry operators, timber mills and other factories.
"As a lifeline utility and an essential business we continued to operate through level 4, although many of our customers ceased operations. The priority at the time was to ensure food and other essential supplies kept being distributed throughout the country.
"In line with many other ports, it was necessary to free up space in case other ports became clogged up with non-essential cargoes or if the Covid-19 crisis had worsened and they had been struck with a serious Covid-19 outbreak. This was particularly important at Northport as we have so much available space here,'' Finchett said.
Ships carrying essential cargoes such as animal feed were given priority over other cargoes to ensure farmers were supplied during the drought that was also affecting Northland at that time.
With the interruption to the normal workflow during lockdown, port staff proved nimble in resolving some challenges. With a reluctance to "expand the bubble" and bring in external staff, all members of the team - including office staff - spent time on the wharf, which proved to be a memorable experience for many, he said.
As the various cargoes were shipped off and the remaining logs were almost all exported during level 4, it was said to be quite an eerie sight to see the port so empty.
Despite the challenges of Covid-19 and recent disappointing employment news in Northland, Northport is still seeing a positive future, Finchett said.
The team has recently taken delivery of a second mobile harbour crane capable of lifting 125 tonnes. Together with the existing crane, Northport is more than capable of servicing Northland's containerised horticulture exports and associated shipping.
Project cargoes such as new railway lines for KiwiRail and major steel fabrications for Auckland and Northland projects continue to use the port, including recent lifts of large pontoon sections for an Auckland project.
"Northport is in a great position to support importers and exporters,'' Finchett said.
Logging still provides the bulk of business at the port with an average of around 2.5 million tonnes exported a year, other cargo includes horticulture crops such as kiwifruit, avocados and citrus, as well as animal feed such as grains, soya hulls, sunflower seed and molasses. Cement, coal, processed timber, fertiliser and woodchips are other common cargoes.
As the country's northernmost multi-purpose port, it is the closest to most of New Zealand's international markets and has deep water, both of which are important considerations for shipping companies servicing New Zealand.
Northport has recently developed 10ha of cargo storage or handling space inside the port and also has 180ha of commercially zoned land immediately next to the port boundary, so has plenty to offer importers and exporters looking for room to grow, Finchett said.