Beirut explosion casts harsh light on international shipping rules

Murky story of a ship called the Rhosus, which began life as a Japanese dredger

Andrew North – August 10, 2020 18:00 JST – Nikkei Asian Review

Boris Prokoshev, right, captain of the cargo vessel Rhosus, and boatswain Boris Musinchak, pose next to a freight hold loaded with ammonium nitrate in the port of Beirut, in a summer 2014 photograph.    © Reuters

Andrew North has reported widely from across the Middle East, South Asia, and Central Asia. He is a regular commentator on Asian affairs.

This is the story of a ship that was built in Japan in 1986.

Named the “Daifuku Maru No. 8,” maritime records show that it began life as a humble dredger, scooping up mud and rock from Japanese shipping lanes so that bigger craft wouldn’t hit the bottom. Then, in 2002, it was sold to South Korea and renamed. So began a journey around the world, during which the ship’s name, owner and the flag flying from its mast changed every few years.

What are known as “flags of convenience” (FoCs) provide a legal way for a shipping company from one country to reduce costs down by “renting” the flag of another country that has lighter labor rules and lower taxes. Many of these flags are run by smaller, and often poorer countries, ranging from Liberia to North Korea, even landlocked Mongolia and Bolivia. It earns these states valuable revenue, but it also provides a way for unscrupulous owners to conceal their identities while running substandard and polluting ships, as well as dodging the law and cheating their crews.

Between 2005 and 2007, the Japanese-built ship was passed between two Hong Kong companies who called it the “Zheng Long” but flagged it to Belize and then Panama, the tiny Central American state that has nearly 9,000 ships sailing under its flag. That’s around 16% of global shipping tonnage, more than any other country.

Once notorious for its lax rules, Panama now keeps closer tabs on who can fly its colors. So it was telling that when a Panamanian company bought the ship and converted it into a cargo freighter, it was reflagged to the Black Sea nation of Georgia — another country known for running a low-cost FoC regime.

There were still more identity changes to come. First, a Cyprus-based Russian business owner bought the freighter. But when it was sent to pick up a shipment from the Georgian port of Batumi in 2013, the Georgian flag had been replaced with the colors of Moldova, a country with no seaside coast but a reputation at the time for allowing its flag to be used for smuggling by Iranian vessels.

Showing its age, the now 30-year old ship had defects that included a hole in its hull requiring water to be pumped out to stop it sinking, but it set sail nonetheless. When the Russian owner didn’t pay wages, the crew walked out, forcing him to find another crew before sending the vessel out to Beirut to earn extra cash by taking on heavy machinery. When the ship’s decks buckled under the weight, inspectors were alerted and it was declared “unseaworthy.”

The former Japanese dredger was by then named the “Rhosus,” which the world now knows as the ship that carried the 2,700 tons of Georgian-made ammonium nitrate that exploded in Beirut port on August 4 with such deadly effect.A former Japanese dredger named the “Rhosus,” carried the 2,700 tons of Georgian-made ammonium nitrate that exploded in Beirut port on August 4, killing up to 158 people, and injuring more than 6,000.    © Reuters

In the aftermath of the disaster, the focus has rightly been on the failings of Lebanon’s dysfunctional government, as the explosive cargo was its responsibility once offloaded. But the murky story of the Rhosus also raises questions as to why an international system almost designed to avoid accountability is allowed to continue.

The International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF) has been campaigning for an end to FoCs for decades. It lists 35 countries running flags of convenience, blaming the practice for low wages and abusive conditions among merchant navies, as well as the “floating coffins” on the world’s seas.

Some maritime experts argue that the story of the Rhosus shows that controls worked because the ship was eventually stopped in Beirut. According to Natasha Brown, spokesperson for the International Maritime Organization, the UN’s shipping regulation body, more and better inspections have led to a decline in serious incidents in the last seven years.

Japan, the US and Europe all operate a system of white, gray and black lists to classify flags by their record, with frequent inspections for poorer performers. “That makes it more difficult for an owner to keep using a blacklisted flag,” argues Luc Smulders, Secretary-General of the Paris MoU, the organization that oversees European inspections.

But such measures still don’t go far enough. Blacklisting doesn’t stop a ship from sailing, and there are plenty of ports beyond the reach of organized inspectors. Groups such as the ITF say that until there is a “genuine link between the flag a ship flies and the nationality or residence of its owners,” abuses will continue.

Moldova is a case in point. Seven years after the Moldovan-flagged Rhosus was stopped in Beirut, the country is on the official flag performance blacklist. But it continues to run a lightly-regulated shipping registry for all comers. You can do it all online with no mention of any physical checks. (The country’s ship registration agency did not respond to several requests for comment.)

With all that has since emerged about the Rhosus and its past, many have wondered how it was ever allowed to sail with so much explosive material on board. But as things stand, there is little to stop another ship with a shady past from setting sail today.

Firth of Thames best home for a new port for 100-plus years: Auckland Business Chamber (and Cubic agrees)

The suggestion of the Firth of Thames is a
The suggestion of the Firth of Thames is a “brave, big call”. Photo/ Google

By: Andrea Fox Herald business writer andrea.fox@nzme.co.nz

Just when you thought not another report could be wrung out of Auckland’s port future debate, the Auckland Business Chamber is urging all Kiwis to completely “re-imagine” a port for 100-150 years – and it’s pick is in the Firth of Thames.

After staying pretty quiet during a flurry of reports over shifting the Auckland port, the chamber is launching its own take, “A Port for the Future”, which invites the community to use an accepted timeline that the existing port will do for another 25 or so years, to carefully plan another to last more than another century.

And for port observers feeling reported-out, Chamber chief executive Michael Barnett assures “this is not another report”.

“It is an effort by the chamber to get people to re-imagine where a port might be and what would be the best for New Zealand and New Zealand business – not a competition between Auckland and North or Tauranga but an informed discussion of what could be.”

Barnett said the chamber represents the voice of Auckland business without bias, and in this neutral position has stepped back to analyse all the discussion around the relocation of the port from Waitemata Harbour.

“The chamber … now realises that the issue is not just an Auckland problem, but is one that, if done correctly, will bring benefits right across New Zealand.”

The chamber had concluded the existing port was fully sustainable for another 25 to 30 years and that a solution is required beyond that. To provide a port solution beyond the generation after next required vision and a willingness to go beyond the familiar.

Ports of Auckland has 25-30 years of life left in it, says Auckland Business Chamber. Photo / Michael Craig
Ports of Auckland has 25-30 years of life left in it, says Auckland Business Chamber. Photo / Michael Craig

The chamber’s offering makes a case for a man-made island ship exchange terminal in the Firth of Thames, connected by broad gauge rail to a container terminal facility in the vicinity of Pokeno/Meremere.

The island terminal would be “a whole-of-New Zealand” terminal servicing large foreign trade ships handling all import and export containers. The report does not discuss costs but points to several overseas examples to underline there is nothing in the paper that is not tried and proven elsewhere in the world.

“What is running out (for the existing port) is social licence and that’s what’s motivating us to try to accelerate the debate and re-imagine what a port could look like”, Barnett told the Herald.

“What’s been uncomfortable has been the apparent political nature of the discussion so far, it tends to have been personality-driven from the north – almost an anti-Auckland thing. Yet this isn’t about either of those things, it’s about a nation down in the South Pacific dependent on its ability to import and export.

“We need something for the next 100 years and the people of New Zealand should make that choice. It’s not up to a politician or a government.

“(So far) we have re-imagined the port simply by saying ‘let’s pick up Auckland port and take it north (to Northport)’. I’m saying we can do it another way.”

The chamber will widely distribute its paper within the freight, transport and shipping sector and invite comment and discussion directly to the chamber.

The chamber’s analysis concluded there would always be a need for a port in Auckland – “just not as we know it”.

Auckland Business Chamber chief executive Michael Barnett.
Auckland Business Chamber chief executive Michael Barnett.

Social licence issues arising at New Zealand ports were “but the tip of the iceberg and demonstrate that the focus being purely on relocation of the Port of Auckland is extremely narrow and has the potential to lead to a flawed conclusion”, said the paper.

“Ports of Auckland is clearly approaching a sunset phase, however, it is the chamber’s view that the present facility will be capable of handling existing throughput plus growth for several years to come … (but) it is inevitable and acknowledged by the chamber, that the port’s container facilities will be shifted from the present location to another site.”

The paper said volume growth and investment required at the Port of Tauranga, along with “other issues starting to emerge” made it “pretty safe to assume that the Tauranga terminal will also be looking for a new location in future”. In four weeks the Tauranga port handled as many containers as Wellington’s port in a year.

Current modelling showed that with the construction of the future city of Drury South, the Auckland-Hamilton-Tauranga triangle would encompass four of New Zealand’s six largest cities.

Over the next 30 years the population in the area between greater Auckland and Taupo was forecast to grow by 7.8 per cent a year. During this time the rest of New Zealand’s population was predicted to grow by 2 per cent a year and by 3.6 per cent north of Auckland.

The option of developing a new port at Manukau Harbour raised in earlier reports was indeed an option when considered just in the context of Auckland, the paper said.

“However it is not compatible with the chamber’s objective of providing a future solution that will benefit NZ Inc. Throughout … the chamber has avoided introducing untested or yet to be implemented technology as will be required to overcome the hazardous conditions presented by the Manukau Harbour entrance.”

The Firth of Thames had been looked at in studies over the past 25 years.

“Unfortunately the concept appears to be too far out of the mainstream for people to understand, especially as it has only been viewed as a solution solely for Auckland and suggest constructions methods based on the traditional.”

The paper details modern construction methods used overseas.

Barnett concedes the chamber’s suggestion of the Firth of Thames is a “brave, big call” given the environmental, wildlife and iwi concerns that are likely to be raised against it.

But with time on New Zealand’s side for consultation, research, innovation and planning, problems could be properly addressed and hopefully overcome.

Barnett, a veteran of port group discussions over the years, worked with ports consultant Tony Boyle to produce the paper. The project cost did not exceed $10,000, he said.

“But I like to think it is rich in intention.”

MSC Continues To Invest In Decarbonising Shipping

in International Shipping News 08/07/2020

MSC Mediterranean Shipping Company, a global leader in shipping and logistics, is heavily investing in its fleet and low-carbon technology to support the industry’s transition towards zero carbon future.

Shipping can be accurately described as the most environmentally sustainable form of cargo mass transportation. Nonetheless, MSC is acutely aware that international shipping has an impact on the climate and our decision to invest in low-carbon technology is complementary to the company’s broader strategic approach to sustainability. The company operates a modern fleet and is running the biggest fleet investment programme in the industry to further reduce emissions.

MSC fully supports the IMO’s policy goals to decarbonise shipping and is actively exploring and trialling a range of alternative fuels and technologies – pioneering large scale usage of up to 30% biofuel blends for container ships, for example – on top of some significant energy efficiency improvements across its fleet.

Around 90% of the world’s trade is transported by sea. To meet the market demand while minimising emissions, MSC was the first shipping company to deploy 23K+ TEU, ultra-efficient vessels on some of the world’s busiest trade lanes (incl. the Mediterranean). In 2019, MSC set a new standard for sustainable container shipping, by introducing the MSC Gülsün with one of the lowest carbon footprints by design, at 7.49 grams of CO2 emissions to move 1 ton of cargo 1 nautical mile.

In addition, to help bridge the gap between shipping today and the zero-carbon future, MSC was the first major shipping line in 2019 to offer clients an option to fully compensate the remaining currently unavoidable carbon emissions caused by the transport of their cargo through participating in MSC’s Carbon Neutral Programme.

Inaccurate analysis of CO2 emissions from shipping

In addition to our massive investment in reducing emissions, MSC fully supports reporting CO2 emissions transparently and precisely in the European Union (EU) Monitoring, Reporting and Verification (MRV) system, as mandated by EU legislation. As said in an earlier statement in December, it is vital that the raw data reported in the system are analysed accurately and take operational realities fully into account, to give a realistic picture of the related emissions.

Another recent analysis by Transport & Environment on shipping emissions in the EU, fails yet again to take a number of operational aspects of MSC’s services fully into account, and thus does not offer a complete assessment of our role and impact in terms of emissions. Nor does it support a constructive dialogue around decarbonising shipping.

To provide a comprehensive and accurate conclusion, CO2 emissions should be compared on an equal basis. An analysis focusing on shipping emissions in the EU should only take into account emissions which actually occurred in the geographical area of the EU, if it is going to be compared to other sources limited to the same area. This is particularly relevant for a global company such as MSC, which operates in all the world’s major shipping lanes. A complete analysis would show that only 40-45% of the emissions reported by MSC in the MRV were actually in the EU. In addition, a correct analysis would also show that MSC has achieved 2.5% YOY reduction in absolute emissions under the MRV scheme in a single year.

Further to the company’s own efforts to minimise environmental impact, MSC contributes to the work of industry groups and associations to accelerate decarbonising the shipping industry.
Source: MSC Mediterranean Shipping Company SA

Manukau Harbour ‘wouldn’t work’ as new Auckland port

Manukau Harbour would never work as a new location for Auckland’s port, transport company director Chris Carr says.Manukau Harbour

Manukau Harbour. Photo: RNZ / Jessie Chiang

A report by economic consultancy Sapere published yesterday ranked Manukau Harbour as the best option. It considered Northport, Manukau, the Firth of Thames, the Port of Tauranga and a shared increase in capacity at both Northport and the Port of Tauranga.

An earlier report, backed by New Zealand First, identified Northport at Marsden Point as the best option. The report was completed by a government working group led by former Far North mayor Wayne Brown.

Auckland Mayor Phil Goff called the previous Northport work ‘shoddy’ and Transport Minister Phil Twyford said it “had a clearly pre-determined outcome” in favour of moving the port to Marsden Point.

New Zealand First still backs Northport as a new location, with MP Shane Jones saying Manukau was the most treacherous harbour in the country and unfit as an alternative site for Ports of Auckland.

Carr and Haslam director Chris Carr said he didn’t know how the Sapere report had come up with Manukau Harbour.

“It’s probably about the only time in the world I’ll ever agree with Shane Jones,” Carr told told Morning Report.

“The prevailing weather comes in on the western side of the country. Ports don’t exist in the west coast of New Zealand, they exist on the east coast.

“I’m no maritime person but all the shipping companies say that they won’t go to the west coast and that in itself would tend to make Manukau the first shipless port that we’d have in the country.

“It’s simply not suitable operationally and it wouldn’t work no matter how much we might try and make it fit.”

If port had to be moved from Auckland it should be to somewhere ships can get in and out safely, he said.

“You also want to go somewhere near the largest consumption area which is the Auckland-Tauranga-Hamilton-Waikato area.

“The only place you can do that is the Firth of Thames. It’s not ideal.”

He agreed with the Sapere report that Ports of Auckland could keep operating for more than 30 years before it ran out of space where it was.

“But New Zealand’s not good at doing this sort of stuff and we take so long to do it that we need to start working at it and looking at it.

“If you look at it from a logistical point of view the decisions become quite easy – it’s when you get politics involved it becomes quite hard.

“The shipping companies who in the end of the day determine where their vessels come would not choose Manukau, ever.”

Shane Jones told Morning Report he had come off second best to people opposed to a relocation to Northland.

“I had professionally and personally campaigned with my leader for the expansion of Northport and relocation of Ports of Auckland activity to Tauranga and Northland,” he said.

He invoked the sinking of the Orpheus in 1863, in which 189 people died, as reason to not build a port at Manukau Harbour.

“I will prophesy that a thousand years will pass before a new port will ever be located in Manukau Harbour.

“[The Sapere report] wants to take us over the bar of the most treacherous harbour in New Zealand and dredge to a level of spill that will rival Mt Cook somewhere in New Zealand or it’ll be dumped in the ocean.”

Jones said work on a new port needed to “get cracking” in 10 to 15 years.

“In New Zealand we leave too many infrastructure decisions to the last minute.”

No decision is to be made before the election, leaving it for political parties to campaign on.

World’s first full scale ammonia engine test – an important step towards carbon free shipping

in International Shipping News,Shipping: Emission Possible 01/07/2020

The technology group Wärtsilä, in close customer cooperation with Knutsen OAS Shipping AS and Repsol, as well as with the Sustainable Energy Catapult Centre, will commence the world’s first long term, full-scale, testing of ammonia as a fuel in a marine four-stroke combustion engine. The testing is made possible by a 20 MNOK grant from the Norwegian Research Council through the DEMO 2000 programme.

“This is a great example that illustrates the importance of dedicated petroleum R&D. This DEMO 2000 project is another steppingstone for reaching our ambitious climate targets and it is also aligned with our recently published hydrogen strategy. We need to develop and use new technologies that reduce emissions. We are very happy to support development work that can lead to increased use of ammonia as a fuel in shipping and in the offshore sector. Know-how from this project will also provide important input to the development of regulations for the use of ammonia and other low-carbon fuels”, says Tina Bru, Norwegian Minister of Petroleum and Energy.

Ammonia is promising as a carbon-free fuel for marine applications, in view of the maritime industry’s need to fulfil the International Maritime Organisation’s vision of reducing greenhouse gas emissions from shipping by at least 50 percent by 2050. Furthermore, ammonia has huge potential for providing green energy to remote power systems, such as offshore installations on the Norwegian Continental Shelf.

Development work by Wärtsilä, as it prepares for the use of ammonia as a fuel, continues with this testing programme, which will be the world`s first full-scale four-stroke combustion engine test. The project will commence in the Sustainable Energy Catapult Centre’s testing facilities at Stord, Norway during the first quarter of 2021.

“We are really excited to further develop and understand the combustion properties of ammonia as a carbon free fuel in one of our multi-fuel engines”, says Egil Hystad, General Manager, Market Innovation at Wärtsilä Marine Business.

“Ammonia storage and supply systems will be designed and developed for maximum personal safety, and in parallel with the Fuel Gas Handling System under development as part of the EU project ShipFC. This project is coordinated by NCE Maritime CleanTech, and it involves an ammonia driven fuel cell which will be tested on the Eidesvik Offshore supply vessel, Viking Energy”, Hystad continues.The project leaders pictured at the Sustainable Energy Catapult Centre’s test facility at Stord, Norway from left to right: Egil Hystad, Wärtsilä, Willy Wågen, Sustainable Catapult, and Kjell Storelid, Wärtsilä.

The project leaders pictured at the Sustainable Energy Catapult Centre’s test facility at Stord, Norway from left to right: Egil Hystad, Wärtsilä, Willy Wågen, Sustainable Catapult, and Kjell Storelid, Wärtsilä.

From testing to real operations

Wärtsilä, as part of its development work on future fuels, has studied the use of ammonia as a future carbon-free fuel through the ZEEDS initiative. The company’s first ammonia combustions tests were commenced in Vaasa, Finland, in winter 2020, and will continue with this long-term testing at the Sustainable Energy Catapult Centre facilities in Stord.

“We are extremely pleased to be part of this project that will prove for the industry the robustness of ammonia as fuel. The project confirms our test facilities’ and Norway’s leading position within the testing and development of solutions for the use of maritime carbon-free fuels”, says Willie Wågen, CEO of Sustainable Energy Catapult Centre. The centre is part of the Norwegian Catapult programme that facilitates a national infrastructure for innovation. The programme is run by SIVA in close cooperation with Innovation Norway and the Norwegian Research Council and financed by the Norwegian Ministry of Trade, Industry and Fisheries.

The full-scale fuel testing programme can pave the way for ammonia engines to be used in real vessel operations within few years, and several shipowners have shown interest in this possibility. It will also provide important insights into the long-term effect of an ammonia fuelled engine in relation to other systems and components in a vessel, including the required safety measures.

Close cooperation between the government and industry

“A future implementation of ammonia as a carbon free fuel, combined with clean energy production from offshore wind or other renewable energy sources can be the start of a new industrial era for the Norwegian industry”, Egil Hystad points out.

“The Norwegian culture for collaboration and knowledge sharing across different companies and sectors, is a great support in closing big technology gaps. The assistance, cooperation and funding from governmental institutions are essential to drive the change towards a carbon free future”, he continues.
Source: Wärtsilä

Volkswagen launches world’s largest low-emissions LNG car transport ship

Volkswagen isn’t just trying to reduce emissions in its cars.

The automaker has launched the first of two LNG-powered overseas cargo ships that will replace two of the nine heavy oil-burning ships it currently uses on routes between Europe and North America.

(VW)

The China-made Siem Confucius left Emden, Germany, on Tuesday with 4,800 cars onboard bound for Veracruz, Mexico. According to the automaker, which is still trying to clean up its image in the wake of the “dieselgate” scandal, the 200-meter-long ship reduces carbon dioxide emissions by 25 percent, nitrogen oxide by 30 percent, soot by 60 percent and Sulphur oxides by 100 percent compared to the conventional ships. It is the largest vehicle transporter of its size.

VW Group’s “goTozero” program is targeted at reaching carbon neutrality across the company by 2050 and reducing the lifetime greenhouse gas emissions of the production and operation of its vehicles by 30 percent compared to 2015 levels.

According to VW, the ships cruise at 16.5 knots (~19 mph) in eco mode and can also run on egas or biogas if necessary. The company currently schedules approximately 7,700 shipments annually around the world and will continue to update its fleet.

Biofouling Survey For Cargo Vessels Arriving In New Zealand

A Biosecurity New Zealand-organised biofouling survey will involve compulsory hull checks for up to 40 arriving cargo vessels.

The ships randomly selected to take part in the survey will be required to undergo a dive inspection and answer questions about biofouling.

The aim is to build a profile of vessels that are most likely to be contaminated with foreign marine species, says Biosecurity New Zealand spokesperson Paul Hallett.

“Biofouling poses a grave biosecurity risk to New Zealand’s marine environment. We know that nearly 90% of marine pests arrive in this country as biofouling on the submerged surfaces of international vessels.

“The survey will pinpoint risk factors that influence the extent of biofouling on a commercial vessel visiting New Zealand. It will put us in a better place to target vessels that require further investigation.”

“We already scrutinise the biofouling history and voyage records from arriving vessels to determine the biosecurity risk. The survey results will allows us to further refine our risk analysis.

“The study will also benefit the shipping industry by providing quicker clearance for vessels that pose negligible risk.”

The survey will involve underwater inspection of vessel hulls and other submerged areas. The vessel operator will also be required to complete a questionnaire on the vessel’s maintenance and movement history.

Biosecurity New Zealand has contracted the Cawthron Institute to undertake the field surveys at a range of ports, starting in August 2020. The project is expected to take up to two years and involve surveying up to 40 vessels.

“We want the survey sample to be as representative of the industry as possible. For this reason, the survey will be compulsory for selected vessels. Biosecurity New Zealand will use powers under the Biosecurity Act to allow this.”

With the introduction of Craft Risk Management Risk Standard for Biofouling in May 2018, New Zealand became the first country in the world to introduce nationwide rules to combat the dangers of biofouling.

© Scoop Media

Government looking behind schedule on road safety targets

The government is being accused by the Opposition of failing to deliver on its road safety targets.No caption

National’s transport spokesperson says the government hasn’t delivered. Photo: RNZ /Dom Thomas

The government committed $1.4 billion at the end of 2018 towards a three-year programme to make roads safer – the goal of which was to stop 160 deaths and serious injuries each year.

But so far, according to written parliamentary questions, only $474 million had been spent on the Safe Network Programme by the end of March.

Progress is going well on rumble strips with almost 3,000km being installed out of its 3,500km target by mid-2021.

RNZ reported in July last year that just 16km of median barriers had been installed in a year.

But as of the end of May this year, 18km has been installed out of its 198km target.

Only 151km of side barriers had been built so far out of a target of 322km.

National’s transport spokesperson Chris Bishop said those figures weren’t good enough.

“When you go through all the numbers the government has talked a big game on road safety measures but has simply failed to deliver,” he said.

Spokesperson for road safety charity, Brake, Caroline Perry said the progress was disappointing.

“We’d obviously like to see these measures rolled out as quickly as we can, they are measures that are proven to reduce deaths and injuries on roads and so in order to save lives and improve road safety we need to see more of them in place,” she said.

Perry said Covid-19 would have had an impact on work, but what she really wanted to see now is more barriers being installed and more speed limit changes.

Associate Transport Minister Julie Anne Genter said work will now start to speed up.

“Up until our government put the big focus on road safety and median barriers, it was incredibly difficult for the New Zealand Transport Agency to implement them, but that process has been streamlined and I expect it to really start to ramp up in the next few years,” she said.

Safer speed limits are a key element of the safe network programme, but only 35km of roads have had their limits changed so far.

Genter said that’s because the speed limit changes has been subject to a lot of consultation.

“I expect that with community input those decisions will be made soon,” she said.

When asked if NZTA will meet its targets in 2021, Julie-Anne Genter said saving lives is the most important target and she was confident that will be met.

Auckland’s port seeks consent for deeper channel – POAL

A deeper channel needed to safeguard Auckland’s vital international supply lines

Ports of Auckland has applied to Auckland Council for consent to deepen the city’s shipping channel and a resource consent hearing on the matter will be held next week.

Auckland’s population is forecast to grow significantly, with a million more people expected to live here by 2050. More people means more demand for the products we all buy from overseas, which means more containerised imports and – bigger container ships.

Ports of Auckland must be ready to handle this growth.

The largest container ships calling in Auckland now carry up to 5,000 twenty-foot containers (TEU). Shipping lines want to bring 6-7,000 TEU ships here in the next 2-3 years and in future we will need to host ‘New Panamax’ ships that can carry around 12,000 TEU.

The channel is currently 12.5 metres deep at low tide, but New Panamax ships are 366 metres long with a maximum draft of 15.2 metres. Ports of Auckland is only applying to deepen the channel to 14 metres – so how will the ships get in?

The answer is tidal windows. In common use globally and at other New Zealand ports, a ‘tidal window’ simply means that deeper draft ships enter or leave port when the tide is high enough.

To create a tidal window suitable for New Panamax ships to access port safely we will need a channel which is 14 metres deep on the straights and 14.2 metres deep on the bends. Our berth will be dredged to 15.5 metres so ships can stay through a full tide cycle.

By using tidal windows, we can minimise dredging and reduce cost. It is the most efficient way to accommodate larger container ships.

The dredging will be done by the lowest impact method available – a digger on a barge. The digger will have a long arm to reach down to the seabed to scoop out material. The channel bed is mostly soft material like marine muds, mudstones and some sandstone and gritstone, which can be removed easily. No blasting is required.

Ports of Auckland asked for the consent application to be publicly notified by Auckland Council so that people could have their say on the project. Over two hundred submissions were received.

If consent is granted, work on deepening the channel could start in 2021.

Conservation concerns over Northport proposal

What would shifting much of Auckland’s freight shipping operation do to Whangārei’s harbour? Conservationists say the risks are like throwing dice for the marine ecosystem.

Conservation advocates worry rerouting ships from Ports of Auckland to Whangārei’s Northport might stimulate the local economy but come at a cost to the harbour’s ecosystem.

The proposed shifting of the port is now a bottom line for New Zealand First in any possible future coalition agreement. After announcing his candidacy for the Northland electorate last week Shane Jones told TVNZ’s Q+A: “In the event that we’re back, a bottom line is definitely going to be the relocation of the Ports of Auckland to the north.”

But there’s concern from conservationists and scientists that more ships in Whangārei Harbour would mean more dredging, construction, noise pollution and potential ship strike as well as a change to water flows.

Northport chief executive Jon Moore’s response is that, unlike other ports Northport is accustomed to working with environmental rules and is the only port in the country to be built under the Resource Management Act.

“This means that all of the environmental management requirements of the RMA have been built into the port’s day-to-day operation,” he says.

Build it and they will come

While Northport may have established itself within RMA rules, compared to the Auckland’s waterfront operations it’s small fry. Currently just three ships at a time can tie up at Northport. In Auckland, depending on the size of the ships, there’s space for 11 to 13. 

The number of ship calls per year also shows the gap between what the two ports are handling at present.

In the last financial year 1318 ships called in at Ports of Auckland (POAL). Around 127 were cruise ships and a few were Navy ships, but the majority carried freight.

Northport had 304 ship calls in the same time period. The nearby refinery, which uses its own berth a short distance from Northport, had 218.

To take even some of Auckland’s ships would require a substantial expansion. 

Northport already has a resource consent to extend its 570 metre berth by 270 metres and reclaim 2.8 hectares of land but this small extension won’t come close to providing enough berths to cater for Auckland’s ship traffic.

A video on the Northport website showed potential options for expansion with six ships berthed. If completed in total this would add another 820 metres of berth extending either side of what currently exists and reclaim 25 hectares of land from the harbour. 

Given the current conversations, it’s perplexing there’s no option on Northport’s vision of the future video which shows how much the port might need to expand to cope with its current ships as well as Auckland’s freight ships.

Even to fit the depicted three more ships would mean a big change in a small harbour which conservationists say has some outstanding features. 

Also consented is deepening of the channel into the harbour. This dredging consent for 3.6 million cubic metres of sea floor is held by the oil refinery, not Northport. This is to ensure the channel is deep enough for larger ships. Newsroom understands while the work was consented in 2018 it has not yet begun.

A marine reserve sits just 650 metres from Northport and is home to seahorses, dwarf scorpionfish, octopuses and attracts predatory fish such as kingfish. The harbour also has significant shellfish beds.

There will be dredging

Based on the option shown on the video Northport’s, CEO Moore estimates it would “need to remove 1.14 million cubic metres (not a large amount as far as dredging operations go) to create a consistent depth of 14.5 metres from the western end of the berth to the eastern end” of the berths pictured. 

This is in contrast to what’s said the report of the Upper North Island Supply Chain Strategy Working Group published in December 2019. This was not written by Northport. It claimed while Auckland needed dredging to fit larger ships: “No such dredging is required at Northport as Suezmax ships already visit.”

Staff at POAL have estimated the dredging required in Auckland versus dredging which might be required at Northport. The estimation includes the channel dredging at Northport which the oil refinery already has consent for. For POAL the ability to dredge the channel is dependent on resource consent hearings this month.

Estimation by Ports of Auckland of potential dredging required. The 3.7 million cubic metres of channel dredging for Northport is already consented for Refinery NZ to undertake.

Local ocean ecologist Glenn Edney said the amount of dredging potentially needed to cope with Auckland’s ships as well as what is already expected in Northpoint was likely to be unprecedented in the harbour. 

The process would involve dredges suctioning sediment which has settled to the seafloor and placing it onto barges. During the process some can spill out.

“A lot of the dredging is fairly toxic. While it’s in the mud it’s trapped there and it’s relatively harmless. It’s only when it’s suspended in the water or on the surface it becomes a problem and of course that’s what dredging does,” Edney said.

Another effect of dredging is a likely change of water flow in the harbour as areas are deepened. This could affect the water flow around the marine reserve as well as the shellfish beds.

He’s sceptical of the ability of modelling to accurately predict the outcome.

“The environmental impact models will be standard models that will look at water flow and everything. Unfortunately the complexity of a dynamic living system like Whangārei Harbour defy our ability to model really accurately. We’re throwing the dice on the health of those significant shellfish beds.”

As well as water flow changes from dredging, Edney worries about the potential of silt stirred up by ship propellers. Shellfish are known for being filter feeders which can clean water, but they don’t cope well with silt suspended in water.

He said the shellfish are already struggling and there’s a rāhui on collecting them.

There’s a flow-on effect from shellfish abundance which impacts other sea life.

The shellfish attract stingrays to the harbour and females come to the harbour to give birth.

“When the stingrays are born, beautiful, cute little 25 centimetre replicas of the adult, the first thing they do is they go straight down to the sea floor in those shallow harbours and they feed on the young shellfish.”

Orca in front of Marsden Point refinery. Photo; Ingrid N. Visser

It’s a case of pipi starting a food chain. While shellfish are a tasty lunch for stingrays, the stingrays’ oil-filled livers are a tasty treat for orca.

Listed as ‘nationally critical’ by the Department of Conservation, New Zealand’s orca are at the last stop on the threat classification system before extinction. Only 150 to 200 remain.

Marine biologist Ingrid Visser is based in the area. She’s part of the Orca Research Trust and like Edney she sees the ecosystem effects as a stack of cards.

“It’s not just pick-a-species, they’re all interconnected.”

She also worries about the impact of dredging on the harbour as well as noise, pollution and the risk of boat strike.

“We know that the orca, for instance, use it [Whangārei Harbour] for socialising, for mating, for giving birth, for feeding, for sleeping. It’s critical habitat for them. People say ‘they can just go somewhere else’. Well, no. They can’t because there are very few harbours left they can go into.”

Ship strike – marine hit and runs

Another concern is the increased likelihood of ‘ship strikes’. Just like when bugs make an unfortunate connection with a travelling vehicle’s windscreen, sometimes whales and other sea creatures collide with ships. Most of the time, the far larger ships don’t even realise they’ve hit a whale. 

University of Auckland Associate Professor Rochelle Constantine explains that instead of hearing ships only when they’re close, the constant low frequency hum of ships can be heard underwater for many kilometres and the sound doesn’t get a lot louder as ships get close.

There’s a possibility this continual thrum becomes little more than background noise for sea mammals such as the Bryde’s whales she studied in the Hauraki Gulf and they tune the sound out as they go about their normal day of eating plankton.

“Our work showed that on average, just over two whales per year were being killed by ship strike. Those were just the whales that we found. So we knew there were probably more.”

Like orca, Bryde’s whale numbers are limited to the just below extinction point. Two ship strike deaths a year posed an enormous threat to the species, Constantine said.

She has worked on a voluntary protocol with the Hauraki Forum, the shipping industry including Ports of Auckland and the Environmental Defense Society.

By reducing speed to 10 knots in the Hauraki Gulf in areas whales were known to be in, the deaths stopped. Collisions probably still occur, said Constantine, but at 10 knots, they’re not as likely to be lethal. 

Since the voluntary measures were adopted by the shipping industry the last recorded death was in 2014. 

“In my ideal situation of looking at the environmental impact, the voice of the harbour would be at the table. That voice would be saying, ‘there’s too much uncertainty’.”

Constantine hopes any proposal to divert ships to Northport includes work to understand the sea life in the area.

“Before any of this occurs we would need to undertake a really good census of the habitat use in those waters coming into the Northport region to understand the main routes that ships will take into that port and then have a look and assess the risk profile.”

She said she had been involved in aerial surveys in the past up to Whangārei Heads and knows Bryder’s, blue, fin, sei, humpback, pilot and minke whales can be found in the area, as well as several dolphin species.

“It would be such a shame to undo all the hard work that’s been done over the last seven years. There are 15 whales alive today because the ships slowed down.”

Constantine also wonders about the impact of construction efforts on the harbour, saying the importance of the seabed is under-appreciated.

She said there was a difference between a localised, brief, disruption to one which is ongoing, never-ending or regular.

“Is more dredging required? Are they going to be making larger wharves that change the water flow? All these kinds of dynamics that make noise in the water, they result in shifts in sedimentation, destroying the seabed to make the port deeper.”

Vissner acknowledges work by Northport.

“Credit where credit’s due. Northport has been doing due diligence looking at what they can do to mitigate the issues. There’s a difference between mitigation and complete abstinence. We don’t have complete abstinence in the harbour at the moment, but that doesn’t mean we should be expanding it either.”

Edney wonders what the conversation would be like if the harbour enjoyed the same legal personhood as the Whanganui river and, through spokespeople, the opinion of the harbour was required to be taken into account.

“In my ideal situation of looking at the environmental impact, the voice of the harbour would be at the table. That voice would be saying, ‘there’s too much uncertainty’.”