Quake-Lifted Seabed Hurts Town Reliant on Whales, Lobsters

  • Kaikoura seafloor raised several meters by magnitude 7.8 quake
  • Whale-watching boats largely stranded by shallower waters

Damaged coastal area after a 7.8 magnitude earthquake hit New Zealand, on Nov. 14.

Photographer: New Zealand Defence Force via EPA

The massive earthquake that struck New Zealand this week has lifted the seabed around the South Island town of Kaikoura by several meters, putting the local fishing industry and whale-watching tourist operation at risk.

Shellfish delicacies such as abalone and lobster, which live on submerged rocks and reefs, have been hoisted out of the sea by the magnitude 7.8 quake and will need to be relocated, the Ministry for Primary Industries said. Boats operated by Whale Watch Kaikoura Ltd. are now largely stranded in their marina due to the reduced water depth. The government Thursday announced a financial aid package worth an initial NZ$7.5 million ($7 million) to keep businesses afloat.

The raised seabed is another blow for Kaikoura, which relies on tourism and fisheries for its economic survival. The picturesque town of about 2,000 people, whose name translates from Maori as Meal-of-Lobster, has been cut off after the quake triggered huge landslides over coastal roads and railway tracks that will take months to repair.

While an inland route will soon be re-opened, “the roading damage appears extremely difficult to fix” and “it is difficult to see any degree of normality returning to the region within a year,” said Cameron Bagrie, chief economist at ANZ Bank New Zealand in Wellington. He said international and domestic tourists spent an estimated NZ$120 million in the Kaikoura district in the year to September.

Feeding Whales

Whale Watch operates four catamarans capable of taking 100,000 people a year to the deep waters off the Kaikoura coast, where whales feed in the nutrient-rich currents. Other operators offer chances to swim with dolphins and mingle with seals, making the town an exciting destination for tourists.

An estimated 1,100 tourists were in Kaikoura, which is framed by snow-capped mountains on one side and the sea on the other, when the earthquake hit early Monday. The seismic rupture, initially measured as magnitude 7.5, was centered in the north of the South Island, about 100 kilometers (62 miles) inland from Kaikoura, where one of its two fatalities occurred.

U.S., Australian and Canadian warships are helping the New Zealand military with an air and sea evacuation of the town’s stranded guests, who were fed lobster during their ordeal donated by the local Maori tribe. Most of the tourists have now been uplifted after 449 people were shipped out by HMNZS Canterbury overnight, Civil Defence said Thursday.

Summer Season

Tour operators in Kaikoura are concerned about the busy summer season approaching, Prime Minister John Key told parliament Wednesday.

Whale Watch has indicated it will only be able to operate for two hours a day because of the impact of the raised seabed on its marina, he said. The solution may be dredging to deepen the channel, Key said.

Government officials are also working with the Kaikoura community to support the rebuilding of fisheries.

Professor Jeff Shima, director of the Coastal Ecology Lab at Victoria University in Wellington, said the images of uplifted rocky reefs covered with dying abalone, lobster and seaweeds were striking.

“The extent of this uplift is not yet clear, but without question the affected areas will experience significant changes in the quantity and composition of marine life,” he said. “Recovery could take years.”

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