Story: Marlborough region

Page 7. Extractive industries

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Sawmilling was a major enterprise from the 1860s. Brownlees were the biggest operators, felling trees around the Māhakipawa inlet and in the Kaituna and Pelorus valleys from 1864. At their peak they operated 45 km of tramways and three mills. Brownlees had shipped approximately 189 million cubic feet (5.35 million cubic metres) of timber by 1915.

By then, most of the accessible and useable native timber in the region had been felled. Exotic forests were planted throughout northern Marlborough from the 1950s, extensively on the margins of the Richmond and other northern ranges.


The first gold rush was to Wakamarina, a short way up the Pelorus valley from Havelock, in April 1864. Around 4,000 miners jammed the diggings – known as Canvastown – by the middle of May. Within a few more weeks it was clear that the returns were modest, and many miners left.

A second rush took place in 1888 to Cullen Creek, in the hills between Havelock and Picton. It was quickly followed by a rush to the Waikākaho and other streams which flowed southwards from the same ridge line. Alluvial gold was not extensive and ‘Cullensville’, like Canvastown, did not last.

In both the 1860s and the 1880s–1890s, gold-bearing quartz reefs were exploited in these and other locations in the Richmond Range. At Waikākaho one company invested in a 5-km aerial tramway to transport the quartz, and a crushing battery to extract the gold, but this enterprise also proved unprofitable.

Mining by companies continued until the early 1930s. Some smaller-scale mining lasted into the 1940s.


Native flax (Phormium tenax) grew on swampy land around Marlborough; it was harvested and prepared manually by Māori. Between 1828 and 1832, in Sydney alone, £50,000 worth of flax fibre was sold. The flax trade provided supplementary income for some whalers and farmers. From the 1860s to around 1920, there were occasional years when flax was profitable, especially after 1900. Later, changing trading conditions and conversion of swamp to farmland spelt an end to the native flax industry in Marlborough. The famous Chaytor flax mill at Marshlands closed in 1964.

A non-native flax from which linen could be made was grown, with government encouragement, during the Second World War.


Salt was first produced commercially at Lake Grassmere (Kāpara Te Hau) in 1952. In the 2010s approximately 60,000 tonnes of salt – about half of New Zealand’s needs – is harvested annually. The salt is produced by evaporating sea water. Lake Grassmere is a shallow inlet adjacent to the sea into which salt water can readily be introduced. Frequent strong dry winds hasten evaporation. Around 60 people are regularly employed at the works.


Commercial fishing began early, but there was limited local demand. Nonetheless families such as the Heberleys, Fishburns and McManaways were involved for generations.

Crayfish tails from Kaikōura (which means ‘to eat crayfish’) were exported to the United States in the 1950s and 1960s. Since the 1990s there has been a trade in live crayfish to both Asia and the US.

In 2014 over 60% of NZ’s aquaculture exports were from Marlborough. The contemporary aquaculture business dates from the 1960s and is dominated by green-lipped mussels. King salmon, Pacific oysters, pāua (abalone), kingfish and seaweed are also produced.

The majority of ‘farms’ are located in Pelorus Sound, with smaller centres at Croisilles Harbour, East Bay in outer Queen Charlotte Sound, and Port Underwood. Mussels and salmon are packed at plants at Havelock, Picton and Blenheim.

In 1997 eight iwi of the upper South Island, prompted by their failure to be awarded rights for mussel farming, applied to the Māori Land Court to have the foreshore and seabed of the Marlborough Sounds determined as Māori customary land. This in turn prompted the Foreshore and Seabed Act 2004, which regulated title to the foreshore and the seabed, effectively reserving both for the Crown. The Marine and Coastal Area (Takutai Moana) Act 2011 restored iwi’s ability to seek customary rights and title in court.

How to cite this page:

Malcolm McKinnon, 'Marlborough region - Extractive industries', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 28 May 2024)

Story by Malcolm McKinnon, published 12 May 2012, updated 1 Nov 2016