It can be hard to appreciate how far away the Chatham Islands really are. When a visitor arrives, the first thing they learn is that there’s a 45-minute time difference between the Chathams and the mainland. The second thing they learn is that you must never say “mainland”—it’s not the mainland; the land to the west is ‘New Zealand’, as if it were a different country. In fact, islanders don’t call themselves Kiwis, but Wekas, which are so plentiful they are hunted and eaten.
Geographical separation has bred a fierce cultural independence among this tough, gumboot-wearing tribe. They drive mud-caked 4WDs, put up with winds so strong that trees grow at 45-degree angles, and downplay extreme weather events—ex-tropical Cyclone Pam, which damaged wharves at Kaingaroa and on Pitt Island in early 2015, was just a “blustery old day”. They’re the sort of people who stitch up their own wounds if they need to. One local filed her broken tooth to avoid a trip to New Zealand to see a dentist.
Conversely, distance has produced a degree of economic dependence on the New Zealand government—a vexation to the proud soul of Chathams culture. Ninety per cent of funding for council services comes from New Zealand and important infrastructural decisions are often made in boardrooms in Wellington rather than in the Chathams’ own ‘capital’ of Waitangi. They’re resilient yet reliant; independent yet dependent—it’s an uncomfortable paradox.
The Chatham Islands Council (CIC) services the lowest population of any territorial authority—about 600 people—and just five per cent of its revenue comes from ratepayers. This is the lowest proportion of revenue from rates of any council in New Zealand, according to a 2014 report by Wellington consultancy MartinJenkins. The firm was commissioned to prepare an economic profile and future growth scenarios for the Chathams by Environment Canterbury, on behalf of CIC.
The findings reveal the true cost of the islands’ isolation. Rates are about $2100 a year, which is close to the New Zealand average. But if you add in ‘council dues’—an import-export tax that applies to everything from a box of veggies to a live shipment of sheep (there is no longer a meatworks on the islands)—the locals pay a lot more. “Rates plus council dues suggest over $5000 per ratepayer, which is well above the highest council rates,” says Jason Leung-Wai, a senior MartinJenkins consultant who was involved in writing the report.
Islanders pay their taxes like every New Zealander. Yet according to CIC, much of their essential infrastructure and services operate at a bare minimum level.
So they pay more and get less—a retort Chatham Islanders are apt to use in response to any suggestion that they are a drain on the national coffers. Wekas miss out on things Kiwis take for granted, such as sealed roads, a choice of radio stations, reasonably priced fruit and vegetables and cellphone reception. There is no secondary school, butcher or vet. Nor is there a permanent midwifery service—most women travel to New Zealand to give birth, and as a result, the newest Chatham Islanders do not get “Chatham Islands” on their birth certificates. The biennial mammogram flight to New Zealand is delicately described as the “tit flight”.
What the Chathams needs, says the islands’ mayor, Alfred Preece, is growth.
Economic growth will likely bring population growth. That will increase the ratings base, spread the cost of infrastructure and lower the cost of living.
If the Chathams’ three main sectors—fishing, farming and tourism—experienced strong growth, the population could almost triple to around 1700 by 2023, according to the MartinJenkins report. But for now, poor infrastructure and the high costs of living and doing business in the islands are hindering the development of local industries and contributing to population decline.
According to Statistics New Zealand, 609 people lived in the Chathams in 2013—a decrease of nearly 30 per cent of the population in as many years.
Some locals see a $52 million overhaul of the islands’ main wharf, at Waitangi—pledged in the 2015 national budget—as an essential first step in reversing this population trend and setting the Chathams on a path to self-sufficiency.
The existing wharf, which locals describe as their “State Highway 1”, is vulnerable to rough seas and about 70 days are lost to bad weather each year. A new, all-weather structure should be completed by 2017. Preece says it will bring reliability to shipping schedules, which is something the Chathams have never had before. He hopes it will encourage more people to invest in the islands—whether that be in land development, higher stock numbers or new commercial ventures. If nothing else, the investment is a major confidence booster.
It costs between $786 and $1310 for a return flight to Christchurch, Wellington or Auckland (1½ to 2½ hours each way) and the flight attendant sometimes dishes up egg sandwiches and Milk Shake lollies. Air Chathams operates a 1960s Convair 580s, a type of plane general manager Duane Emeny says has good fuel economy and performs well on a short runway. But a larger aircraft—such as a Boeing 737—would be able to carry significantly more freight, says Emeny, meaning fish caught by trawlers working the rich waters surrounding the Chathams could be processed and shipped in a pre-packaged state from the islands. Local processing would require more people, creating “a whole new level of opportunity”, he says. However, a Boeing 737 would need a stronger, longer runway.
Like the Chathams’ port and former meatworks, the airport used to be owned and subsidised by the government. In 1991, the Chatham Islands Enterprise Trust (CIET) was given several assets, along with $8 million, and told by the government to “go away and run it yourselves”, says Preece. The trust still owns and operates most of the Chathams’ infrastructure companies, including its only energy firm. Chatham Islands Electricity runs diesel generators, which rumble away alongside the trust’s offices. Two wind turbines on the mayor’s property at Owenga feed into the electricity supply.
The port and airport companies run at a loss, but CIET tops them up every year to avoid increasing berthing and landing fees, which would push up the cost of living even further. The companies are subsidised through CIET’s other profit-making enterprises, such as Chatham Islands Quota Holdings, which owns and leases fish quotas.
Balancing the community’s social needs with the trust’s long-term economic future is difficult. Some years, says CIET chairman Phil Seymour, the electricity company needs propping up, too.
“We’re still making things happen, but you’re never in a very, very strong position,” he says. “I mean, it was always recognised by those that were part of the process in those early stages that $8 million was never going to be enough to successfully put this place in order, economically.”
Preece says the government could help by taking back ownership of the port and airport facilities, once upgraded, to remove “those big headaches that clearly are not economic”. After investing millions in the port’s development, it makes sense for the government to own it, he says. The suggestion strikes at the core of the Chathams conundrum; how do the islands achieve both independence and economic sustainability at the same time?
Some residents suggest the biggest economic boost of all, and the only realistic way to achieve self-sufficiency, would be for islanders to gain control of all the seafood resources within the Chathams’ maritime zone. That way, the profits would benefit the local economy, rather than lining the pockets of New Zealanders.
Fishing is by far the biggest industry in the Chathams, providing a third of employment—139 jobs—and contributing $17 million to the islands’ GDP (out of a total of $46 million).
Its presence is felt everywhere. Cray pots and fish bins punctuate the landscape. Paua divers regale you at the pub with tales of great white shark encounters. A feed of blue cod is never far away.
The waters surrounding the Chathams add thousands of square kilometres to New Zealand’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), which substantially benefits the country’s fishing industry. Some islanders say the resources are being pillaged by “outsiders”, who own the majority of quota surrounding the islands.
Preece says while New Zealand’s Quota Management System (QMS, introduced in 1986) benefited fish stocks, it had some negative consequences for the island community. Before the QMS, you basically had to live on the Chathams to catch fish there, and “you could catch as much fish as you wanted”, he says. After the QMS was introduced, quota owners had no financial incentive to stay. Many sold up and left.
Local iwi Ngāti Mutunga o Wharekauri and Moriori, CIET and Chathams fishing businesses have put a lot of effort into trying to acquire as much quota as possible, says Preece, but it remains owned, largely, by outsiders. In a 2015 review of Māori commercial fisheries structures under the Māori Fisheries Act, Wellington barrister Tim Castle said Aotearoa Fisheries Ltd (AFL, New Zealand’s largest Māori-owned fisheries company) owned and controlled more of the Chathams’ high-value inshore quota species—paua, rock lobster and blue cod—than the islands’ iwi combined.
“The end result is that Ngāti Mutunga and Moriori have effectively had to compete with AFL in the traditional Māori/Moriori Chatham Islands fisheries,” says Castle. “Understandably, this remains a major grievance.”
Maui Solomon, general manager of the Hokotehi Moriori Trust, says the profits from the fisheries in the Chathams zone should be “circulating on the island”, helping the place to get ahead. “It’s our lifeblood, for goodness’ sake.”
Former Chathams mayor Pat Smith agrees: “A Pacific island that does not own its 200-mile zone is valueless.” Under the current arrangement, islanders request infrastructure upgrades from the government “like some bloody serf”, says Smith. “It took them six years to even consider putting up a new wharf.”
According to the MartinJenkins report, more than 27 million kilograms of fish, comprising 65 species, was caught in the Chathams zone in 2013. Hoki and smooth oreo were the main species, by volume. But of that, only 1.6 million kilograms (about six per cent) was actually landed on the islands. The figures shed light on why some islanders feel short-changed.
The control of quota by New Zealand fishing interests grates with Delwyn Tuanui, too, but he remains pragmatic. Tuanui owns Chatham Island Food Company, which he formed in 2009. On the wall of his office on the edge of a cliff at Owenga, black-rimmed clocks show the time in the cities where he sells his fish: Melbourne, Singapore, Honolulu and Los Angeles.
A seventh-generation Chatham Islander (“I had to go to Aussie to find a wife I wasn’t related to”), Tuanui has a deep appreciation for the land and sea, and says his business drive stems from growing up watching islanders get the rough end of the stick.
“I think the only way that we’re going to protect the culture of this island is to step up and take some ownership of its future,” he says.
Tuanui started his company in Melbourne, as a hard-up agribusiness student at Marcus Oldham College. He had a mate send over some frozen blue cod fillets as part of a three-week university practical. He bought a cooler bag, got a copy of The Age Good Food Guide (“For three weeks, that was my Bible”) and hit the streets.
Tuanui reckons the only reason chefs and restaurant owners gave him the time of day was “because I actually came from the place where the fish came from—an incredibly isolated place that they had never heard about”.
Soon, Chatham Islands blue cod started appearing on the menus of some of Melbourne’s best restaurants. By then, Tuanui was importing it chilled, not frozen. Chefs liked the sweetness of the fish, its natural buttery quality, delicate flavour, the crunch of the skin, and importantly, the story of where it came from.
Tuanui returned to the Chathams in 2014 with his Australian wife Gigi in tow, then seven months pregnant. Leigh Fisheries bought half shares in the business, and the Chatham Island Food Company now employs 15 staff.
As well as blue cod, it also exports paua and crayfish, in white ice boxes emblazoned ‘Food from the Edge’—proof that the Chathams’ isolation can also be its commercial advantage.
Preece says the advantage of the Chathams’ isolation also applies to its farming and tourism sectors. “We have unpolluted resources that the world is hungry for, and we have experiences to offer here that people can’t get anywhere else.”
Toni Croon, the publican at Hotel Chatham in Waitangi, says visitor numbers have quadrupled in the past two decades, and cruise ships now make regular visits. While visitor numbers are not collected officially, each year 1000 to 2000 tourists travel to the isles of the ‘misty sun’—one translation of Rekohu, the Moriori name for the islands.
Connie Norgate, who manages a dozen local Department of Conservation staff, including New Zealand’s most isolated ranger on Pitt Island, says cruise ships that offer ecotourism around the subantarctic islands, including Silversea Expeditions and Heritage Expeditions, have expressed interest in landing on Mangere and Rangatira Islands. Both are DOC-managed nature reserves, home to some of the world’s most threatened bird species, including the shore plover, black robin, Chatham Island taiko, Chatham petrel and Forbes’ parakeet.
Mangere, the less fragile of the two, could become an ecotourism destination, says Norgate. Landings would have biosecurity risks—there are no rats, mice, cats or possums on the island—but there’s a product there, says Norgate, and it would be a shame not to explore the idea.
Besides tourism, there are other economic prospects on the horizon. Moana Pacific Fisheries, a subsidiary of AFL, a big employer on the islands, is building a $3 million processing plant at Waitangi, right next to Croon’s pub. Preece says the new factory is the first major investment by a fishing company in the Chathams since the 1960s crayfish boom.
Meanwhile, a 100-kilometre-long phosphate deposit on the Chatham Rise is being eyed for mining. Although plans for extracting seafloor phosphate nodules on the undersea plateau suffered a setback in early 2015 when the Environmental Protection Authority declined Chatham Rock Phosphate’s resource consent application, company chief executive Chris Castle says it is considering reapplying. Chatham Rock Phosphate says support services would be based on the island, bringing employment and injecting cash into the local economy, but fishing interests and iwi are opposed to the scheme, fearing disruption to marine life, the economic mainstay.
As well as looking at development options, the Chathams community wants to address infrastructure issues. A $2 million housing project is exploring options to deal with the lack of good-quality, affordable housing on the islands. The housing shortage is not helped by the fact that it costs 40 per cent more to build a house on the Chathams than elsewhere in the country, says Toni Gregory-Hunt, CIET’s business operations manager. Local tradespeople are sparse, and others must be flown in at considerable expense.
Waste management problems are being addressed with the help of a government grant. At the dump in Te One, decaying debris is strewn by the wind over a large area, some of which is smouldering after being set on fire.
“The dumps are horrendous,” says Preece. “They are the bane of our lives.” But until now, CIC has lacked the money to do anything about it. With the grant of just over $3 million, CIC has built a new landfill at Owenga and is building three new transfer stations at Kaingaroa, Owenga and Te One.
Treaty of Waitangi negotiations are also happening. Māori make up 60 per cent of the Chathams’ population (the fourth-highest proportion by territorial authority in New Zealand, behind Wairoa, Kawerau and Opotiki), and the majority are affiliated with Ngāti Mutunga. In early 2015, Ngāti Mutunga o Wharekauri Iwi Trust began a Treaty settlement process on behalf of the iwi. Moriori may soon be able to advance their own Treaty claim.
While lines are still sometimes drawn across cultural boundaries—Māori, Moriori, Pākehā—islanders are united by one thing: a love for their home. Drivers wave when they pass each other, regardless of who is behind the wheel, and leave their cars unlocked.
A spirited annual netball match, Wekas versus Kiwis, pits those who were born on the Chathams against those who came from New Zealand. But afterwards, they meet at Hotel Chatham, where divisions mostly dissolve, occasionally with the help of a sickly-sweet concoction of Tullamore Dew Irish whiskey and V known as a “Mookie Bomb”.
Some islanders love their home so much they don’t want it to change. They don’t want population growth. They don’t want “outsiders” encroaching on their way of life.
“In my view, the government is taking a very business-like approach to the Chathams,” says Preece. “Population will grow, industry will grow, and that’s where you’ll get a greater rating base. Self-sufficiency is an objective. It might be a wee way off but it is definitely an objective.”