Ocean-Loving Kiwis “Scare Off” Approaching Seabed Miners

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New Zealand is home to abundantly rich aquatic life that is predicted to take a dive due to deep-sea mining threats.

In the South Taranaki Bight, which traces the western coastline of Aotearoa New Zealand’s North Island from Mount Taranaki to the Patea River, a flourishing and still-mysterious marine ecosystem has evaded destruction – for now. 

The Bight is characterised by big waves and jet-black, mineral-rich volcanic iron sands. We are unsure about all that lives there, but what we do know is significant. it’s home to scores of native species including kororā/little blue penguins (Eudyptula minor), numerous types of seabirds, and various kinds of dolphins – including the critically-endangered Māui dolphin (Cephalorhynchus hectori maui), whose population is estimated at just 55. It’s also the only known feeding ground for a rare population of pygmy blue whales (Balaenoptera musculus brevicauda). 

But the area’s ebony sands have also caught the eye of extractive-industry investors – albeit for rather different reasons. In 2017, the national Environmental Protection Authority (EPA) granted mining company Trans Tasman Resources (TTR) a license to suck up seabed material from a 66 square kilometre (25 square mile) stretch of seabed in the Bight, in order to extract iron sand for export. The license would allow TTR to remove up to 50 million tonnes of the seabed annually, for a period of 35 years. 

The ocean-loving residents of the wild, windy West Coast have something of a reputation for toughness and resilience, and they’ve resolutely refused to take that decision lying down. Numerous groups challenged the EPA’s decision in the High Court in 2018 – and succeeded in having it deemed unlawful. These included community-based action group Kiwis Against Seabed Mining (KASM); environmental NGOs Greenpeace and Forest and Bird; local iwi (indigenous Māori peoples/nations) Ngāti Ruanui and Ngā Rauru; commercial fishing organisations; and a local conservation board.

TTR then appealed the High Court ruling, so KASM and Greenpeace took the case to the next level, the Court of Appeal. In April this year, that court also ruled that the EPA decision was unlawful, stating that according to the legislation governing the country’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), protecting the environment is a “bottom line.” It was also stated that there was unsatisfactory evidence that the proposal would not cause environmental harm – including a decided lack of baseline data from which to monitor any changes.

“The applicants underestimated two things,” says Phil McCabe, former KASM chairperson and current Pacific Liaison for the Deep Sea Conservation Coalition. He was drawn to the cause in 2012 after a conversation with a friend out in the surf.

“One, the complexity of implanting an activity that normally occurs on the land into the marine environment was completely underestimated,” he said. “The complexity of the marine environment was underestimated – we just don’t understand it enough. Secondly, they underestimated the depth of connection that the humans in New Zealand have to the ocean, because of the passion that came out in opposition.” 

The fight’s not over yet.TTR has gained approval to appeal the latest decision in the Supreme Court. But McCabe and his fellow KASM members are well versed in playing the long game. The TTR proposal is just one in a string of mining applications that activists have successfully passed off since mining companies began applying for exploration permits in Aotearoa New Zealand waters in 2004.

“We’ve basically scared them all off,” laughs environmentalist Malibu Hamilton, who’s surfed the famous West Coast breaks of Whāingaroa/Raglan since the 1960s – and has been involved in blocking seabed mining since the start.  

KASM formed in Whāingaroa/Raglan in 2006 and has chapters in various parts of the West Coast. Its approach has been both strategic and creative – and characterised by a whole lot of passion and heart. When the organisation learned in 2012 that the entire West Coast, as well as a number of offshore areas, was under a mining exploration permit, “it was really good motivation for the entire coast to stand up,” says McCabe. KASM ran public meetings along the coast to alert people to what was happening and targeted other ocean user groups including diving and fishing clubs. They also engaged local iwi about the cause. 

“From the beginning – and throughout – we endeavoured to bring forward in every conversation our love of the marine environment, and the enduring relationships that we have as individuals and collectively,” says McCabe. “That’s what I always started the conversations with: that Aotearoa New Zealand is an island nation full of coastal people, and every one of us has a deep, heartfelt connection to the ocean that can’t be denied.”

Activities that embodied that passion – including an intense, emotive silent protest against a mining executive’s visit to Whāingaroa/Raglan, and pro-surfer Dave Rastovich’s gutsy 350 kilometre sea paddle up the coast – maintained the community’s connection to the heart of the cause. 

When it was time to make submissions on applications, KASM also created templates to make it easy for people to add their voice. “Making it simple for people to engage, and giving them opportunities to contribute, really was key,” says McCabe. He mentioned it was also crucial to engage experts such as environmental lawyers and scientists to represent their interests in court hearings – for free, wherever possible!

McCabe and Hamilton hope that this latest victory will help inform international decisions on the issue. “The point is that New Zealand has looked at this under a microscope,” says McCabe. “And it’s come up not clearing the bar.”

At a time when the global community is urgently looking toward more sustainable ways of managing its lands and oceans, the inherently-destructive nature of seabed mining also seems an uncomfortable fit, says fellow KASM member and organic dairy farmer Mike Moss: “It’s against the direction of travel the planet is on.” 

The intense opposition experienced by TTR should serve as a warning for would-be seabed mineral investors across the board, says Moss. “We want to point out to them that this is a really dumb place to put your money, because we’re not here to lose,” he says. “And our kids are not here to lose, either.” 

That intergenerational perspective is critical, says Hamilton, because the temptation to make a quick buck from mineral extraction will likely always be present in one form or another. “I think it’s going to be continuous,” he says. “Whether it’s KASM or anybody else, the seabed mining story’s not going away.”

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