What appears to be a raised level of environmental protection by the Ministry of Primary Industries has caught the shipping industry unawares and seen a cable laying vessel expelled from New Zealand waters even though the full environmental regulartions applying to ships do not come into force for another two years.

The Ministry’s move is sending shock waves through the shipping industry, and sources are warning that it could have a major impact on shipping companies willingness to service New Zealand.

The ship, the cable layer, the Ile de Re, is currently around 300 nautical miles off the coast of Northland forced by the Ministry to put divers over its side to clean its hull.

Shipping industry sources say this is a highly dangerous operation.

Weather in the area is currently rough.

The problem appears to be according to some, a  desire by the Ministry for New Zealand to be seen as a world leader in enforcing international regulations to clean ship’s hulls to prevent foreign marine growth from entering our waters.

The Ile de Re has been contracted to lay a new internet cable across the Tasman between Raglan and Sydney.

The project has already  been subject to holdups, most recently because the Ile de Re had to be diverted to repair an Australian undersea cable.

Now the cable laying ship is now more or less standing still while it waits for divers to clean its hull, its client, the Tasman Global Access Consortium (Spark, Vodafone and Telstra) say that at this stage there is no reason to believe this will impact the TGA deadline.

“The consortium expects the TGA will be sending and receiving data across the Tasman by the end of 2016,” the company said in a statement to POLITIK.


It said it was in daily contact with Alcatel-Lucent Submarine Networks, the company which is laying the cable.

“It is important to note that timeframes for large-scale marine operations of this nature are always going to be subject to weather conditions, marine scheduling and other factors,” it said.

Meanwhile, the Ministry of Primary Industries’ Andrew Spelman, Manager Central and South Regions, Border Clearance Services, in a series of statements to POLITIK said MPI has a new requirement regarding vessel biofouling that requires vessels to arrive here with a clean hull.

“This requirement (known as a Craft Risk Management Standard) is currently voluntary but is due to become mandatory in May 2018,” he said.

“Until then, MPI has powers to take action in cases of severe biofouling, as in the case of the Ile De Re.”

But there are questions about how serious the biofouling of the Ile de Re’s hull is.

The ship was tied up in Auckland earlier this year then sailed to the Bass Strait to repair a cable there and has just returned to New Zealand.

As far as POLITIK could confirm, it did not enter any Australian port while it was away.

Even so Mr Spelman said that “ It is known to be contaminated with a severe-risk level of biofouling.”  

(Biofouling is the growth of marine creatures, weed, barnacles etc that grows on surfaces submerged in seawater – e.g. hulls, wharves, and pontoons. Biofouling on vessel hulls is a means of marine pests relocating from one area to another and it is responsible for approximately 70% of the introduced marine pests now in New Zealand.)

Asked how he knew this, he replied by email, “This type of vessel poses a higher risk than most commercial vessels due to the time it spends in port and because it moves slowly through the water (while laying cable) which does not remove fouling like other vessels that move faster.

“This particular vessel is also susceptible because it has not had a recent antifoul repaint.”

The Ministry has confirmed that it has “expelled” the vessel from New Zealand.

“The Ministry ordered the vessel to stay at least 100 nautical miles from New Zealand’s coast until it had provided a plan to clean the hull so it could arrive in New Zealand clean,” said Mr Spelman.

“MPI has approved a plan with the vessel’s master which allows the cleaning to be carried out by divers at 100 nautical miles (186 km) offshore and where currents will carry any debris away from New Zealand.

“The vessel is currently at least 200 nautical miles off the coast of Northland.

“The cleaning will be undertaken at the expense of the vessel’s operators.

“MPI will permit the vessel to land in New Zealand once it has evidence that the treatment has been carried out correctly. “

But what’s worrying the shipping industry is that the Ministry has done this using what will be an international standard for bio fouled hulls which will not apply until May 2018.

Though the Ministry advised in a circular to the marine industry last May that it was seeking to advise ship owners on how to comply with the standard when it comes into effect, it also warned: “During the lead-in, MPI continues to take action on vessels with severe risk biofouling. For some vessels, the only option available has been to direct a vessel to leave New Zealand as soon as possible and to return only when full cleaning has been carried out.”

Compounding the problem is that New Zealand has no dry dock facilities capable of taking larger vessels. The nearest is in Singapore.

The Ministry concedes this.

“New Zealand needs an adequate capacity of haul-outs, slips and docks that have been approved as having minimal risk of viable organisms being discharged into the sea for vessels,” its circular says.

“These are needed for vessel operators to use in maintaining compliant hulls and also, particularly as vessels are still coming into compliance, for non-compliant vessels to be taken out of the water immediately and cleaned (at the owner/operators’ expense) under direction of an inspector.”

In the meantime “somewhere off the coast of Northland” the Ile de Re is chugging around in a heavy westerly swell in winds of up to 30 knots waiting for a break in the weather to put its divers down and waiting for a Ministry in Wellington to let it start laying the cable from Raglan and then on to Sydney.