Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Eco-Warriors Make Waves in New Zealand

Eco-Warriors James Pribram and Will Henry completed yet another successful mission on a voyage sponsored by XS Energy Drinks. Henry and Pribram traveled to New Zealand’s North Island in order to bolster the effort by local Kiwi surfers to preserve Whangamata Bar, a world-class wave that could possibly be damaged by a marina proposal. They met with leaders from the Surfbreak Protection Society (SPS), a New Zealand based surf protection organization, in order to help them prevent the marina's construction from moving forward. On March 28, Henry and Pribram joined SPS representatives Grant McIntosh and Michael Gunson in a meeting with Tariana Turia, leader of the Maori Party, in the capitol city of Wellington. Following the meeting at Parliament with Ms. Turia, the Eco-Warriors traveled up the east coast, where they sampled waves near the new artificial surfing reef at Mount Maunganui. The following day they met up with SPS President Paul Shanks (pictured above at Whanga Bar) in Whangamata, and were greeted with offshore winds and a head-high swell.

“The wave at Whangamata is an absolute gem,” said Pribram after his first surf at Whanga Bar, as the locals call it. “To damage this spot would be a crime against nature.” The wave, which peels down a long sand bar at the mouth of an estuary, is being threatened by a marina proposal that will dredge huge amounts of sand and other material from inside the wetlands of the estuary, as well as construct a large seawall to protect the newly dredged channel. Surfers and ocean experts fear that the disruption inside the estuary will cause the sandbar to disappear, hence causing serious degradation to the wave quality at Whanga Bar.

“The estuary has existed for thousands of years in a delicate equilibrium," stated Paul Shanks, "with sand on the inside and the outside of the channel in a perfect balance, which is what creates the excellent surfing conditions. What we are worried will happen is, if you dig a hole inside the estuary, sand will disappear off the bar to fill it in.”

Proponents of the marina have been trying for more than fifteen years to gain approval for the project, despite the fact that over 100 moorings already exist inside the estuary, and many local residents are against it. Approval was just granted this year, in a controversial reversal of a previous decision by Minister for the Environment Hon. Chris Carter to deny the application. "Somehow the Marina Society managed to pull strings to get the permit pushed through again," stated Shanks. By then, Hon. Chris Carter had changed positions in the government, and the application was subsequently approved by Hon. David Benson-Pope, Minister of Conservation.

"When you start to dig into the facts," stated Will Henry, "you realize pretty quickly that this decision to approve the marina was influenced by people who stand to make a lot of money off of this project. I would call it a conflict of interest, but some people would say it is outright corruption."

Mooring space near the open ocean is relatively scarce these days in New Zealand, driven by a booming sportfishing and boating industry. Investors in the marina project undoubtedly stand to make a substantial sum of money by selling their berth space once the marina is complete, which appears to be the driving force behind the marina proposal. But opponents of the marina don’t believe that the project is worth sacrificing a world-class surf spot just to make a few people more wealthy. “Whangamata is a surf town – it started out as one and still is one – so why is it that the boaters suddenly can come in here and walk all over us?” furthered Shanks.

During the trip, the marina society attempted to dig test holes in the estuary in order to prepare for the marina’s construction. The testing was halted by four local Maori, who stood on the equipment in protest. “The marina society is working on an illegal consent,” stated Grant McIntosh, a representative of SPS who was present at the protest. Regardless, marina proponents vowed to move forward with the contentious project.

“Once again, it’s a case of the big guys versus the little guys,” said Henry. “As soon as investors smell money, the surfers will have to go surf somewhere else. This can't be allowed to happen.”