Northland environmentalists are speaking out against the proposed $10 billion Auckland port shift to Marsden Point in what one labels a "Think Big" project - about 650m from a marine reserve.
Glenn Edney, a Tutukaka-based ocean ecologist of more than 30 years said the proposed project was akin to Muldoon era Think Big projects where the touted many economic benefits had not delivered locally in the long-term.
Edney said from an ecological perspective, Auckland's port should not come north. The ecological impact for Whangārei Harbour and coastline was not worth the touted benefits that had been put forward for the shift.
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New Zealand orca specialist Ingrid Visser said the port move should be banned.
"The only option is banning it from arriving and I can't stress that enough," Visser, Orca Research Trust founder and principal scientist said.
"The Auckland port should definitely not come to Whangārei Harbour," she said.
Visser said she had not been approached, as New Zealand's only orca expert, by the authors of the Government-commissioned Upper North Island Supply Chain (UNISCS) working group's Ernst and Young report into the proposal which has come out in favour of shifting the port to Northland.
"I am absolutely horrified this is even being considered, given Whangārei Harbour's unique nature, its high biodiversity and the incredibly high importance of the harbour not only to orca, but a range of other species," Visser said.
Whangārei Harbour's name is more fully Whangārei-te-rerenga-paraoa which translated means the place where whales gather. The first return of the harbour's once plentiful visiting southern right whales was documented in 2002 – also a first for any New Zealand harbour Visser said.
About 100 orca use Whangārei Harbour regularly - half of New Zealand's entire population of fewer than 200 of the protected cetaceans.
"There isn't anything that could be done to protect orca (should the port does come to Marsden Point)," Visser said.
She said Whangārei Harbour was critically important at a national level in the orcas' world.
"On a scale of one to 10, where 10 is critically important, I'd put Whangārei Harbour at a score of 10 out of 10," Visser said.
Edney's reasons for being against the Auckland port shift north are many.
Concerns about the health of Reotahi Marine Reserve – only about 650m from the port - was one of the chief among these.
More than 1000 Kamo High School students campaigned for 16 years to create what finally, in 2006, became Reotahi marine reserve – a stone's throw across Whangārei Harbour's narrow entranceway from Northport. Backers at the time described the campaign as a world-first.
The 26ha reserve's Motukaroro Island sits in the reserve, about 700m from the port in what is a harbour mouth about 900m wide.
Edney said the island had world-class ecosystems on its underwater flanks which would not cope well with the sudden change that bringing the Auckland port to Marsden Point would create.
The impacts of major port expansion at Northport would be felt throughout Whangārei Harbour.
Visser said the harbour was key for orca which often foraged for stingray in its shallow waters. It was also the first harbour in New Zealand's modern history to have humpback whales and southern right whales visiting. Bottlenose dolphins used the harbour as a critical feeding location and place to give birth. Seals used the harbour too. A Northland resident leopard seal was also present.
She said Whangārei Harbour's narrow entrance meant orca would be exposed to increased risk of ship strike when moving through the small area to access important feeding grounds.
New Zealand already had the world's highest orca boat strike rate. Boat strike was also a massive problem for whales, dolphins and porpoises. It had become such a problem in Auckland that a voluntary vessel speed reduction had been implemented for vessels coming into Waitematā Harbour, she said.
"The problem will only shift and likely get worse (should Auckland's port shift to Northport) because of the high number of whales and dolphins using Bream Bay and surrounding area and all the zones (routes) leading into Whangārei Harbour."
Orca, whales and seals were among the harbour users that would be impacted in a number of ways from further port development. Impacts included substantial noise increase during the port building and issues with dredging and subsequent increase in boat traffic, she said.
Edney said Whangārei Harbour was internationally important.
"It's unique in the world for its latitude and geographic location," he said.
"New Zealand has some of the most southern mangrove and seagrass on the planet. Whangārei Harbour is one of the best in the world for these types of habitats."
"It's one of the most important harbours in the Pacific for its diversity and richness."
Its shellfish beds, particularly historically, were some of the most prolific in the Pacific, he said.
"This is why the harbour has always been such an important part of Māori life. It's no co-incidence that the ecological richness of this place is tied into some of the harbour's earliest settlement," Edney said.
He said the large industrial area that would result from shifting Auckland's port north would have many effects, including visual and physical impacts.
More shipping into Northport would inevitability mean new highly invasive marine pests for nearby Reotahi marine reserve and the harbour.
Mediterranean fanworm was now on the reserve's Motukaroro Island. The highly invasive seaweed undaria was found at the island for the first time at the end of last month.
"Every ship that's brought in is potentially a carrier," Edney said.
The northward Auckland port shift would mean inevitable dredging. Initial port establishment and allowing manoeuverability for the much bigger ships that would be arriving into Northport were among reasons for this.
They needed water depth of at least 15m depth in their turnaround areas.
Edney said container ships currently going into Auckland carried about 7000 containers. The large ships that would be using Marsden Point's port would carry 12,000 containers.
Meanwhile, in the wake of Swedish youth climate activist Greta Thunberg, Ngunguru's Pippa Benton, 18, said any shift of Auckland's port to Northland needed to be properly considered – and that included its environmental impact, not solely economic potential.
Benton, a recently graduated year 13 Huanui College student, speaking on behalf of Northland youth, said the potential port shift was a classic economy versus environment issue.
"On one hand, the local economy could benefit with more jobs available and increased tourism from cruise ships," Benton said.
"On the other hand, the increase in Northport capacity could cause major environmental impacts on the surrounding marine life and habitat. This would be from factors including increases in pollution and the risk of invasive species spreading through critical areas such as Reotahi marine reserve - and the harbour itself which is a known schnapper breeding ground.
Benton said the majority – about three-quarters - of the freight that would be shipped to Whangārei would then need to be transported south by land to Auckland.
This increased travelling distance would majorly increase Northport's carbon footprint.
"The big move (from Auckland) will be deemed unnecessary for the majority of freight that's only going to be sent south to Auckland. It's a waste of money to build the rail link that will be required to transport this freight. This money could be spent on other methods to better Whangārei's economy.
Benton said Northport was very close to many ecologically sensitive areas, so any potential shift needed to be properly considered before drastic changes were made.
Whangārei Harbour is home to or used by more than 3000 waders and shorebirds at any one time, many of these threatened species.
Anne McCracken, Birds of New Zealand Northland regional representative said the harbour played a critical role for migrating godwits and native New Zealand shorebirds.
About 3000 godwits visited the harbour each year. These birds migrated annually between the Northern Hemisphere and Whangārei Harbour. They annually returned to the harbour to feed and fatten up for their return journey to Alaska.
Godwits were particularly susceptible to human interruption. Interruptions ate into feeding time and therefore weight gain.
"It's critical they're able to feed up otherwise they won't make it (when migrating back to the northern hemisphere)," McCracken said.