Sea of trouble

20 September 2013

Source: New Zealand Herald

Author: Andrew Stone

The rough seas of the southern Pacific Ocean are set to be the focus of resource consent debate as a mining company's bid to dredge the sea floor comes up against the fishing industry and environmentalists.

Alfred Preece has crossed the heaving seas that separate New Zealand and the Chatham Islands three times.  "It's a wild piece of water," says the farmer and Chathams' mayor. "You need to be on your guard out there."  "Out there" is the Chatham Rise, fast becoming the aquatic battleground of the country's next big resource conflict - pitting a small, ambitious mining company against the fishing industry, which on this occasion has the environment lobby on its side.

The project generating strident invective as big as the roaring 40s swells that roll through the stretch of southern Pacific Ocean involves plans by miner Chatham Rock Phosphate to hoover up the top 30cm of sea floor and pump it 400m up to a big ship where the marine silt will be sifted for nodules of rock phosphate before the sediment is pumped back to the seabed.

The miner has its eyes on 450sq km of the Chatham Rise, a flat-topped ridge that runs 700km beneath the sea from Canterbury to the Chathams. Warm ocean currents from the tropics meet cold sub-Antarctic waters above the ridge, making the area one of New Zealand's most productive fishing grounds, as well as a key element in the Chathams economy.

The process of extracting phosphate lumps from the sea floor is far from straightforward. Besides the technical challenges it faces, Chatham Rock, which has ploughed millions into the project, still needs two vital consents before its partners in the venture can start work.  It is striking formidable resistance in New Zealand and wariness on the Chathams, where Mayor Preece says the islands' dependence on the sea has made the community apprehensive about new technology in their maritime backyard.

The latest critic to weigh in against the scheme was Green Party MP Gareth Hughes, who this week argued that the law covering the deep-sea riches was inconsistent.  "I think it makes a mockery of our marine protections to allow literally vacuuming up the seabed in a marine protected area," Hughes said.

For more, go to: m.nzherald.co.nz/environment/news/article.cfm