The container revolution
In the 20th century wharf cranes got faster, and motor vehicles and forklifts relieved some of the strain on wharfies’ muscles. But a more fundamental shake-up came in the 1960s, when roll-on, roll-off terminals were built for the short-sea trades. Bluff and Timaru built all-weather mechanical meat loaders, but deep-sea ships were still being held up at congested wharves as the conference lines (cartels that controlled UK trade ships) dawdled over containerising the Europe trade.
In 1971 the Columbus Line put container ships on the North American run. By then the ports were feuding over which ones would become container terminals. Northland thought it could do the job by itself. The conference lines would have preferred Auckland, Wellington and Port Chalmers, but had to accept Lyttelton thanks to politics. Harbour boards deepened shipping channels and reclaimed land for container storage. They bought gantry cranes, straddle carriers and powerful tugs to handle 45,000-ton ships. It was a transport revolution, far more radical than the switch from sail to steam a century earlier.
Bigger ships demanded more powerful tugs. From the mid-1960s harbour boards built a new type of tug, which could move in any direction and turn in its own length. By the 1970s tugs had bollard pulls of 28–30 tonnes, two or three times that of their conventional predecessors. In the early 21st century, port companies were building even more powerful tugs. Lyttelton’s Blackadder has a bollard pull of 62.5 tonnes and Port Otago’s Otago 57 tonnes.
The provincial ports lost some business and then bounced back as trade flows diversified after Britain entered the European Economic Community in 1973. The new Asian and Middle Eastern trades used smaller, multipurpose ships that could handle both conventional cargo and containers, and that could go anywhere. By the 1980s therefore, Bluff, Timaru, Nelson, New Plymouth and Napier were busy with containers, pallets of fruit, and logs, wood chips and sawn timber. Some new ‘ports’ even appeared at sea. At Taharoa and Waverley off the west coast of the North Island, huge bulk carriers were tied up to buoys to load vast cargoes of ironsands.
Coastal ports did not fare well. The rail ferries killed off the last small river ports, then Ōamaru and Raglan. Whanganui and Greymouth barely held on. The planned closure of the Westport cement works in 2016 will deprive Westport and Onehunga of their main trade.
Commerce and competition
In the late 1980s the government made ports competitive and commercially focused. It abolished the Ports Authority (which controlled capital expenditure) and passed the Port Companies Act 1988 and the Waterfront Industry Reform Act 1989. The Port Companies Act transferred the harbour boards’ commercial activities to new port companies and their social and environmental responsibilities to regional councils. The Waterfront Industry Reform Act axed the Waterfront Industry Commission and put wharfies on local payrolls. Thousands lost their jobs, but port costs fell.
Since then port companies, some with new-style names like Westgate (New Plymouth), PrimePort (Timaru) or CentrePort (Wellington), have invested heavily in container cranes and other machinery. Northland and Marlborough have built terminals in deep water for ships carrying logs. While high land-transport costs still keep bulky, low-value cargo captive to nearby ports, container cargo is more flexible. The container trade has generated particularly fierce competition between Auckland and Tauranga, between Napier and Wellington, and between the South Island ports of Lyttelton, Timaru and Port Chalmers.
Tauranga has been the main game changer. Over recent decades, it has put the heat on Auckland, luring several shipping lines to its container terminal at Sulphur Point (Mt Maunganui), which had seven container cranes in 2015. Its inland or ‘dry’ port, MetroPort, in South Auckland, consolidates cargo for railing to and from Tauranga. More recently it acquired PrimePort’s container terminal.
Another challenge came from ports of a different type – airports. As far as weight goes, there is no contest. In 2001, cargo exported through seaports made up 99.6% of total overseas cargo by weight. But airports exported 15% by value.
From ship to shop
Harbours are also playgrounds. People walk along their beaches, fish from the wharves, or simply watch the passing parade. In the 20th century most harbour boards or councils made at least token provision for recreation – Wellington’s early-1900s Clyde Quay boat harbour and Auckland’s large Westhaven Marina are good examples. Recently, old waterfront areas made redundant by the container revolution have been redeveloped by several cities – ‘from ship to shop’, the trend is called – for commercial, residential and recreational use. Wellingtonians have spent many years arguing over the shape of their ambitious Lambton Harbour project. At Auckland the old Viaduct Basin became the America’s Cup Village in the late 1990s but in 2015 a public backlash stalled – for the time at least – the port company’s plans to extend Bledisloe Wharf into the harbour.