A mining exploration permit has been quietly granted inside a marine sanctuary set up to protect the endangered Māui dolphins.

The decision has shocked conservation groups who were unaware of the move and the Department of Conservation has “significant concerns” about the safety of the dolphins if mining were to go ahead.

Created in 2008, the West Coast North Island Marine Mammal Sanctuary spans the coast from Maunganui Bluff in Northland down to Oakura Beach in Taranaki, extending 12 nautical miles offshore.

Its express purpose is to protect the critically endangered Māui dolphins, which number less than 100 and only reside on the West Coast of the North Island.

Seabed mining within the reserve is prohibited out to two nautical miles offshore but technically allowed further out.

In May, permission to explore a 220-square-kilometre section off the coast of New Plymouth that falls within the sanctuary was granted to a company that wants to dredge the ocean floor for minerals.

Ironsands Offshore Mining Ltd will now be able to carry out tests, including drilling, to assess the viability of the project.

It does not require a resource consent to do so as exploration is considered a permitted activity under the Taranaki District Council’s coastal plan rules, but will need one if it decides to go ahead with the mining.

The permit, granted by New Zealand Petroleum and Minerals, is also close to the Tapuae Marine Reserve, one of two reserves within the sanctuary.

Alongside the Taranaki permit, the company has also been granted permission to explore a piece of seabed off pristine Waihi Beach in the Bay of Plenty.

Details of the permit were revealed in a March briefing to Conservation Minister Eugenie Sage from DOC, which was unhappy about the development.

“DOC has significant concerns about the risk commercial mining would pose to Māui dolphins in this area and would take a keen interest in a consent application.”

The briefing warned that it was uncertain whether the public was aware of the application and there would be a “high level of interest” if people were told of the development.

The exploration permit is just off the Taranaki coast near New Plymouth. Photo: New Zealand Petroleum & Minerals

Opposition to seabed mining in the region is high following a decision by the Environmental Protection Authority to grant a separate company, Trans-Tasman Resources Ltd, consent to mine an area off the south Taranaki coast

The decision was appealed by eleven parties, including the fishing industry, Iwi and activist groups Greenpeace and Kiwis Against Seabed Mining (KASM).

In April, the appeal was heard at the Wellington High Court but a decision has yet to be released.

Ironsands’ exploration permit is almost four-times the size of Trans-Tasman’s permit and closer to shore, something the department warned in its briefing could cause “greater nearshore effects”.

“It beggars belief”

The permit approval caught conservation groups by surprise.

Russel Norman, Greenpeace’s executive director, was stunned and said the decision showed how weak the sanctuary protection was.

“I’m shocked they’ve granted an exploration permit inside a marine animal protection area. It beggars belief this has been consented.

“We’re obviously completely opposed to seabed mining, particularly within a marine mammal protected area. What’s the point in having a marine mammal sanctuary if you can engage in seabed mining right in the middle of it?”

Norman, a former leader of the Greens, was critical of his former party and the fact permits of this nature were being approved while they were part of the Government.

“The question has to be asked, what’s the minister and what’s the Department of Conservation doing?”

Cindy Baxter, KASM’s chairwoman, was also unaware of the approval and pledged to fight the project “tooth and nail”.

“I really don’t know why they are bothering to carry out exploration – there is simply no way they will be able to get a seabed mining consent for an operation slap bang in in the middle of a Māui dolphin marine mammal sanctuary.”  

‘We’re committed’

Sage hit back at suggestions the permit approval was a poor look for the coalition.

“This is a Government with a serious commitment to action on environmental issues.

“It is nonsense to suggest otherwise, particularly when comparing this Government’s track record with National’s.”

Conservation Minister Eugenie Sage says the Government is committed to the environment. Photo: Lynn Grieveson

If Ironsands sought consents to start mining then DOC could advocate on behalf of the Māui dolphins, she said.

Ian Angus, DOC’s manager of marine species and threats, said the department had no input in the exploration permit being granted.

He confirmed DOC would be concerned if a mining consent was applied for and would take a “keen interest” in it.

“The protection of critically endangered Māui dolphins is a major marine focus for DOC … because of the small population DOC would want to understand the impact of any mining activity and what mitigation would be proposed.”

Who is Ironsands Offshore Mining?

Ironsands is a subsidiary company of CASS Offshore Minerals Ltd, a company raising funds to “further it’s plans to commercialise substantial iron sand mineralisation off the coast of New Zealand”.

To do so it plans to use offshore dredge mining, which would suck huge amounts of sand from the seafloor and sift through for valuable minerals.

The company has held the prospecting rights for the Taranaki block for some time, but an exploration permit allows for drilling and feasibility studies.

CASS has also just been granted a five-year exploration permit to dredge a 120-square-kilometre area parallel to Waihi Beach.

But to begin the work they will also need a resource consent from the regional council, something that is not required in Taranaki.

In 2016, CASS chairman Dr Neil Loftus told Stuff that if approved US$1 billion could be spent in the Bay of Plenty and real estate prices could double.

Loftus did not respond to requests for comment.

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