An abundance of timber
Although the earliest European settlers were surrounded by trees, they were able to make little use of timber apart from building houses. Transport difficulties meant that timber could not be easily moved far, let alone exported from the region.
The timber trade increased by the start of the 20th century, once timber could be transported to ports by rail. A number of mills were opened, with modern, steam-driven machinery. In 1910–11, 20% of New Zealand’s timber came from the West Coast.
Rimu was the dominant species milled. Beech trees were generally left standing, although they were sometimes harvested for use as pit props in the mines.
In 1920 New Zealand Forest Service investigations revealed that the total area of remaining native forest suitable for milling was much less than expected. The West Coast was the main area that still had substantial areas of native conifers such as rimu. Much of the forested area on the West Coast was designated as a state forest, and protected as a future source of timber.
New national parks were created at Arthur’s Pass (1929), around Franz Josef and Fox glaciers (Westland Tai Poutini National Park, 1960), and in the area around and west of Mt Aspiring (1964). All were in mountainous areas that did not contain much millable timber.
The Maruia Declaration, first signed in July 1975, called for the end of logging of native forest. It was a divisive issue. Some West Coasters were in favour of logging because they wanted to see economic development, while many of those who signed the declaration (and subsequent petition) lived outside the region.
A gradual change in public opinion led to progressive protection of lowland native forest. Westland Tai Poutini National Park was extended to include adjacent lowland forest, Paparoa National Park was created in 1987, and Kahurangi National Park in 1996. Te Wāhipounamu – South West New Zealand World Heritage Area, designated in 1990, covers all the forests in South Westland.
Forestry since the 1990s
Logging of native forest on the West Coast effectively ended in the late 1990s. In May 2000 the government agreed to pay $120 million in compensation to assist the West Coast economy. Most of this money was managed by Development West Coast.
Some areas were planted in exotic trees, mainly radiata pine, in the 1970s and 1980s. From the early 2000s this was harvested by local sawmills, but the amount of timber available is much less than previously estimated.
The seas adjacent to the West Coast cover the Challenger Plateau, a rich area for fishing. Boats mainly work out of Greymouth and Hokitika. Species such as blue cod, groper and sole are the traditional catch, but deeper-water species such as hoki, tuna, squid and orange roughy are also harvested.
The Westport Deep Sea Fishing School provides practical training for students who hope to enter the fishing industry.
Although West Coasters always insist that the whitebait yield in the current year is poor, there are many stories about its abundance in the past. It is often recalled that whitebait were so common during the 1930s depression that people used to dig them into their gardens as fertiliser or feed them to the hens. One of the earliest whitebait stories came from explorer Thomas Brunner in 1847, who noted that whitebait were so abundant that dogs licked them up from the river banks.
Although whitebait are caught in rivers all round New Zealand, the largest returns are obtained from the West Coast where whitebaiting is an important seasonal industry. Some families move to a cottage near their favoured site for the season.
Whitebait is a high-value commodity – in the 2010s the retail price was over $100 a kilogram. There are detailed regulations covering mesh and net size, placement of nets, and the hours for fishing. On the West Coast, the whitebait season is from 1 September to 14 November. Set nets are allowed in some rivers, but must be licensed. There is no limit on the amount an individual can catch as long as they are following the rules. Once caught and washed, whitebait are usually frozen and stored for later use.