The Whangārei port pushes on with plans to expand docks and dredge 47ha of seabed – regardless of any decision on a Ports of Auckland move.

Years of “politicking” have confused the public about Whangārei port’s long term plans, the Northport boss says. 

Whangārei’s Northport is hosting tours for investors, community groups and media as it gets closer to lodging resource consent applications for its $800 million proposed expansion.

Northport chief executive Jon Moore says the company is aiming to lodge its consent in September to expand the port’s footprint from 48ha to 75ha and increase berthage from 570m to 1390m.

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If resource consent is approved, Northport could build a container terminal to serve the Upper North Island’s container freight needs for the next 50 years, the company claims, as well as a shipyard with a floating dry dock capable of taking vessels up to 250 metres long, including navy ships.

One of Northport’s draft reports says about 1.5 million cubic metres over an area of 47ha of seabed will need to be removed by dredging to build the shipyard berths. This is expected to take place over an 18-month timeframe.

The most noticeable effect from dredging will be the plumes of silty water that could be transported towards the shoreline in certain tidal conditions. But the company says this is a short-term effect and water clarity will return to normal within hours as plume resettles.

The plumes from dredging can also affect marine habitats as turbid water can disrupt feeding and reduce light reaching the seabed. There could also be temporary loss of benthic ecologies, organisms living at the bottom of waterbodies.

Northport says studies in similar areas nearby have shown over time these organisms can re-established dredged areas and the marine ecologies are not expected to be permanently impacted by the plumes from dredging.

While Moore says Northport has no plans of dredging the channel, its neighbour Refining NZ has channel dredging consent for 3.6 million cubic metres of sea floor. 

Reotahi Marine Reserve also sits about 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.

“We’re not painting ourselves as the next Ports of Auckland or a mega port for New Zealand.”
– Jon Moore, Northport

The proposed expansion could create about 400 jobs for Northland, but the plans are not a guarantee, Moore says. They are a “serious” indication of the port’s future plans which he says have been missed due to “political rambling”.

“Northport has been something the politicians have liked to bounce around. A lot of the politicking at the moment has gone quiet and it’s our opportunity to come out and put the facts right,” Moore says.

For years discussions have centred around moving the Port of Auckland, to free up its capacity as demand increases on the port with population growth. Moore says this has somewhat detracted from Northport’s own proposal for growth.

“We want to explain the value of our footprint, without the politics behind, should Ports of Auckland be here or there.” 

An investigation into moving Auckland’s port to Northland was part of the coalition agreement between Labour and NZ First.

There have been more than two dozen reports on the next best fit, and the latest report was commissioned from economics consultancy Sapere by the Ministry of Transport last year, which concluded Manukau Harbour was the best fit out of Northport, Manukau, the Firth of Thames, the Port of Tauranga and a shared increase in capacity at both Northport and the Port of Tauranga.

According to Sapere, if Northport captured the entirety of Auckland’s freight, its enterprise value would increase by $1.765 billion from its assessed enterprise value of $314 million.

The previous big report, conducted by the Upper North Island Supply Chain Study in 2019, had a contradicting view, completely dismissing Manukau Harbour and suggesting Northland as the fit.

If you ask Moore, he says the future is in sharing Auckland’s load with the Port of Tauranga. 

“We’re not painting ourselves as the next Ports of Auckland or a mega-port for New Zealand. We’re a solid support port to enable substantial North Island growth between us,” Moore says.

Last year Ports of Auckland handled 880,781 TEU (Twenty-foot Equivalent Units) while Port of Tauranga handled 1.25 million TEU in the year to June 2020. Northport handled 14,000 TEU last year, Moore says.

If Northport’s plans went ahead, Moore says it could handle Ports of Auckland’s current capacity but there would be “absolutely no room” for any Northland freight or any growth.

“It’s not that we couldn’t move Ports of Auckland up here, it’s just not a long-term strategy. We have to think about upper North Island population growth in the future. This proposal is about supporting significant north Auckland growth.”

Marsden Maritime Holdings, part owner of Northport owns 700ha of port and commercially zoned land in Marsden Point. Photo: Anuja Nadkarni 

New Zealand’s freight was predicted to grow by 55 per cent by 2042, the Ministry of Transport said two years ago.

While the Government decides on the future of Ports of Auckland, Moore says Northport wants to truck along with its own expansion plan.

“The politics will go on, and at some point there will be a decision and at that point we have to address it but at the moment there is nothing solid enough other than for us to work on our strategic direction.”

Northport chairman Murray Jagger says Northport is well positioned for its expansion because of the more than 700ha of port and commercially zoned land available to it, which is owned by Marsden Maritime Holdings, 50 percent shareholder of Northport.

“We’re in a very fortunate position of having green space land behind us and we can help develop the growth whereas the others don’t have that luxury.”

Northport missed out on the Government’s shovel-ready funding last year which would have fast tracked the consenting process. 

Jagger says the cost for the shipyard and port upgrade was too great in the eyes of the Infrastructure Committee.

Since then, the company has been trucking along with its plans, seeking public consultation on its proposal ahead of lodging its resource consent applications.

“We only get one crack at this so we want to make sure we’ve covered off everything we need to cover off,” Murray says.

Northport plans to publish submissions from the community in a couple of weeks on its website.

“We’re in a very fortunate position of having green space land behind us and we can help develop the growth whereas the others don’t have that luxury.”
– Murray Jagger, Northport

Moore says Northport’s future plans involve emissions reduction as it plans to use sea, road and rail as distribution channels. 

The Northland rail upgrade is expected to cost about $1.3 billion, and last month KiwiRail announced funding was allocated from the Government’s New Zealand Upgrade Programme to build a rail link to Northport at Marsden Point.

With freight volumes in Northland expected to increase from 18 million tonnes a year currently to 23 million tonnes by 2042.

The route to Northport will be about 19km, running from Oakleigh, south of Whangārei, and Northport. The route was designated in 2012.

KiwiRail says the project will take up to five years to deliver, but Moore says Northport isn’t aware of when the build will actually start.

Moore says Northport has been in discussion with KiwiRail, but “there’s still lots of work to do”.

He says the “three port strategy” will ultimately help relieve the pressure off Ports of Auckland.

But to do that, he reckons there needs to be a closer look at freight logistics, a piece he thinks is missing in the conversation.

“We’ve got the capacity to look after the northern end of the three port strategy. We want the government to think carefully about freight distribution across the three north island ports before making a decision to build a satellite port somewhere else.”

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