DAVE RASTOVICH: Paddling Against Seabed Mining
Big Sky Wire: The Future of NZ's Maui Dolphin
Big Sky Wire is a regular Coastalwatch column produced by Michele Lockwood & Andrew Kidman. This week, Michele Lockwood Kidman speaks to Dave Rastovich his paddle to raise awareness the impact seabed mining could have in New Zealand.
Recently, Mr. Rastovich put his life at risk in hopes of saving the life of others. In this case, the others are a breed of the smallest, and at last count of merely 55, the rarest form of dolphin on the planet. The existence of these dolphins and the well-being of the coastline along the west coast of North Island of New Zealand is in jeopardy due to yet another bout of greed trying to outweigh common sense. You’ve heard the story before, a dirty corporation wanting to cash in by raping our beautiful Mother Earth. This time it is the mining the seabed in search of iron-ore.
Does this make you angry? Well, it makes me want to punch New Zealand’s Prime Minister John Key right in the balls, where it hurts. But seeing that would probably get me twisted up in trouble I’ve decided to interview my Hero of the Week: David Rastovich, who has taken it a step beyond anger and done something positive about it. Here Dave talks about the issues at hand and tells us of his amazing paddle and how we can stack up our soapboxes and scream to the New Zealand government to leave those seabeds undisturbed, remove the gill nets, stop dumping chemicals and to remember that money will not buy you a new planet. People power works. So get busy!
CW: Can you tell us the reason for the paddle and the events that lead up to it?
DR: My girlfriend Lauren and I were in New Zealand in February, visiting my family where my dad used to live. Surfers in Raglan had also asked us to attend the annual Maui Dolphin Day that happens there every year. We learned that the dolphin's numbers are down to just fifty-five; in all the oceans of the world, only fifty-five!
The Maui, the original Maori name is Popoto, lives only along the west coast of the North Island, they face threats from humanity that include commercial/industrial fishing methods and pollution. The New Zealand government has done nowhere near enough to protect this iconic species of Aotearoa and now they seem to be okay with allowing wide spread seabed mining to come to it's home waters.
Our friends there asked us for some help with running a campaign to alert people about the Popoto's critical situation and the destructive idea to mine the sea floor there. I thought of previous campaigns our group S4C (Surfers for Cetaceans) have carried out where we slowly migrate a coastline in sailing kayaks, meeting local people, experiencing the coastline firsthand and basically raising alarm bells about coastal issues. I figured this coast is too rough to use the same sailing kayaks and so I decided to paddle a board I am familiar with. I paddled the Molokai channel about twelve years ago and liked the experience of being at sea on a lay-down/kneeling paddleboard and so I figured I would give it a go. It's a 17-foot board made by the legend Dick Van Straalen under the http://lahuikai.com label.
I also felt to do the trip alone. My dad left his body two years ago in NZ and this paddle ran straight through the anniversary of that day. I wanted new memories over there, and wanted the space in the water to perhaps deal with his spirit being in a different form. Shit, paddling for hours on end alone in the southern ocean is a weird way to deal with that kind of thing but I guess it's my way.
The Maui’s and Hector’s dolphins are a critically endangered species that live off the west coast of the North Island. Due to the use of gill nets, less than 60 of these dolphins are known to exist, but on your paddle, you had a close encounter with a small pod of them. Can you please tell us about that?
The Popoto's situation is so dire due to not only the use of gill nets, set nets and other industrial style fishing methods but also toxification of their waters. There are only fifty-five left, and within that number only twenty breeding females. They are the smallest cetacean in the world, and the most endangered. It is intolerable that New Zealand of all places has allowed this iconic species to be so decimated.
As I was paddling towards one of the heaviest sections of the west coast I had an encounter with the small dolphin. I had been paddling four and a half hours, it was rainy and there was a swell running from the southwest around six to eight feet. In the thickness of fog and no wind, all of a sudden out of the silence came their short, delicate breath. Eight of them surfaced all around me at once, out of nowhere. They sped under my board and so I picked up my paddling pace to hopefully keep their interest. They responded by bow riding and coming close enough to look me straight in the eye, just inches from my hands in the water. Every now and then, as a swell built up underneath us they would leave me to ride it. Eventually they would jump out of the back of the swell and come straight back to me. We travelled forty minutes together. What a feeling that was, to be surrounded by the smallest, rarest dolphin in the world. Eight of them by me meant I was with a seventh of their entire population!
I apologised profusely to them. I felt so ashamed to be a part of their problem. Even though our human family has wiped out all their families and their complex and highly social structures they still came to me and wanted to play. I just kept apologising, feeling so sorry for what we have done to them. Seems to me we have a lot to learn from cetaceans.
Then they vanished. Gone! I couldn't see them anywhere. The water instantly changed colour and texture and I realised that I had now entered the outer edges of the Manukau Harbour; a huge body of water that has claimed many lives and ships.
Because the wind had never arrived this day I was an hour too late for the top of the tide and now it had turned. It was pulling out to sea with full moon force. This current moves at nineteen knots! No wonder the dolphins had split. I was instantly surround by six to eight foot confused water. Imagine the channel between Haleiwa and Avalanche, but cold and completely isolated and you will get a gist of how this water looked. Fine if you are on a short board that duck dives but no good if you're riding what I am on. For the next kilometre and a half I somehow dodged wave after wave as they came at me from all directions. I felt my dad's spirit on my shoulders looking after me, shouting in my ear that I love that type of shit and that I am right where I want to be!
When my feet finally hit the black sand of the inlet I let out the biggest scream of my life, so happy to be alive after dealing with that wild water. So happy to have met the dolphins, and so sad to know what we have done to them. My screams echoed off the cliffs and into the inlet and I just kept screaming cause I didn't know what else to do. That was one of the most incredible days of my life.
How long was the journey?
Total distance was about 300 kilometres. I injured myself on the first day outside of New Plymouth, near Paritutu. This is a heavy place. An uncle of mine died there when he was young. At that exact spot where he died I came off my board and tried to hold onto it, cause I wasn't wearing a leg rope and the board went over my head and hyper-extended my shoulder. I had been paddling four hours and had two kilometres to go, I paddled with one arm through the last stretch and then had to rest for a few days until it healed up.
What happened then was really amazing. Some local crew and a couple of the guys in our group paddled a few stretches of the coast to keep the ball rolling. But before we left that area of New Plymouth we researched the history of this town and discovered some disturbing stories. This town is where Agent Orange was created and tested for the USA military to attack the Vietnamese in the 70s. The Ivan Watkins Dow chemical plant created this and many more herbicides/pesticides that have been used all over New Zealand's farmlands over the years. To give you an example of the quantities used there, check out these numbers: Forty million litres of Agent Orange was sprayed on Vietnam, twenty million litres sprayed on New Zealand! Waste from the plant has been reported to have spilled directly into the ocean there and many people from that area have given birth to deformed children and died young from aggressive forms of cancer.
If you know anyone in New Zealand please urge them to watch the award winning doco, Let Us Spray on YouTube. This film has won many awards yet is banned from being aired in New Zealand. It explains the whole story.
Through our extended time there due to my injury, we came to the idea that the Popoto dolphin has also been suffering from these same poisons of 1080, 2-4-5 T and others sprayed all over farmlands. The fertility rates and immune systems of these mammals would surely suffer due to exposure to these chemicals, especially given they are a coastal species that live twenty-four hours a day in the waters that receive agricultural runoff all the time.
Because of my injury I missed a good 90 kilometres of the journey, but it worked favourably for our campaign because there was more community involvement with local paddlers jumping on the board and paddling through their home waters.
So in total I paddled around 200 kilometres.
Did you have to train much to prepare for it?
I am a terrible trainer; surfing is good practice for a paddle like that.
What is your connection to New Zealand and it’s coast?
I was born in Auckland and my earliest memories are of being on a little farm in the Waitakere Hills there as a grommet. I remember being on our property and going to a black sandy beach as a kid but not much more than that. We then moved to Australia when I was five.
Who is KASM and what work are they doing to preserve the cetaceans and the waters around New Zealand?
KASM is the group, “Kiwis Against Seabed Mining” and they hail from Raglan on the West Coast. The group has been around a while and is filled with salt-of-the-earth people who want a healthy future for their homelands and sea. Their work focuses on informing New Zealand communities about the proposition to mine the sea floor for iron-ore off the west coast of the north island. Right now there is an application about to be submitted by the company Trans Tasman Resources to mine the sea floor all the way from Whanganui to Cape Reinga. This is basically the entire west side of the North Island. Only around 3% of dollars raised from this project will stay in New Zealand. The company is 95% foreign-owned. Wherever they carry out the mining, dead zones will be created, nothing will survive in its wake. And all the iron ore is going straight to China. The ships come down from China and suck up the sand, separating out the iron ore (which is what makes New Zealand's sand black) then they will dump the waste back onto the sea floor choking anything that may have survived nearby and perhaps even acidifying the ocean there due to the blocking of sunlight. There is huge risk and no reward for New Zealand.
Imagine the tiny Popoto dolphin trying to survive against this type of project ripping through their only home waters! All this and not to mention the issue of altering the sand flow that could very well change the way every surf spot on that west coast functions. We have seen how the dredging at Snapper Rocks ended the lives of Burleigh and Kirra and that is a tiny manipulation of bottom contours compared to seabed mining.
New Zealand has done a great job of promoting itself as a “green and clean” nation. This reputation is particularly driven by the want to cash in on the multi-million dollar tourist industry, however with just a scratch below the surface, it seems their environmental priorities are, to put it lightly, completely out of whack. What are the reasons behind their plans to mine the seabeds and what is at risk by doing so?
In our experience of the trip the everyday person in NZ cannot relate to the Prime Minister John Key, he is an ex-stock broker who seems to care more about the financial state of the country than the country itself and her people. There seems to be a divide surfacing there, much like what happened in America when Bush was messing things up so badly that people were forced to start taking an interest in politics.
Seabed mining is an obvious attempt for a select few in New Zealand to make some dollars. There is no financial benefit to the country as a whole if seabed mining comes to town. And there are huge environmental risks involved. New Zealand is no longer promoting itself as ''100 % Pure'' and I think that is because they know it's a bullshit call that is about to be exposed. The country has been logged and covered in sheep and now cattle, the land is poisoned and now they stand on the edge of wiping out an entire species of cetacean. The idea that NZ is a clean green country is delusional. Australia is similar; it is just our smaller populations that give off a sense of sanctuary. Throughout the couple hundred kilometres of my paddle there I saw only about fifteen kilometres of coastline covered in trees. The rest is stripped and covered in cattle.
Do you feel that the paddle has helped raised the awareness you were hoping for, for these issues?
Our trip brought the biggest numbers of visitors to KASM's website they had ever seen. I think nearly a couple thousand people joined their group. The issue of seabed mining and the Popoto dolphin made it to prime time TV, mainstream print and internet outlets and we jumped on radio programs up the whole coast. All of this helps with spreading the info that the mining companies and the vested interests don't want us to see. But ultimately for me the trip was successful because we sat down with the amazing people of Aotearoa every night and shared information that is critical to their future. So many kids came and hung with us, surfed with us, ate our weird vegan food and learnt of the little dolphin and what it is they could to do help them.
I feel like we were successful in ringing the alarm bells. But by no means have we succeeded with the overall mission.
With journeys like this it always helps me to remember there is no set solution for the environmental/social problems in our world. If there were we would all be using that golden solution. So we need to experiment with ideas and actions, knowing that some will sink and some will swim. But you have to do something. How could you turn your back on that little dolphin… or whatever it is that you are passionate about?
For the Maui’s and Hector’s dolphins, it seems time is running out, seabed mining will only exacerbate their decline and bring many new problems along with it. What suggestions do you have for people who are reading this that want to help support this cause?
There IS enough time to keep the Popoto/Maui Dolphin alive. Tongan humpbacks were down to the same numbers years ago and the king of Tonga stood up and gave them full protection and now there are over two thousand Tongan humpbacks. It is not too late to keep this little dolphin alive. The New Zealand government needs to be pressured into fully protecting the Popoto/Maui Dolphin. So write to them and tell them so! You can take action here: http://www.lets-face-it-dolphins.com/news-blog/article-85-2012-11/urgent-call-to-action-please-spread-the-word-and-post-widely
To stop sea bed mining go to kasm.org.nz and join up to the submissions list. The mining company TTR will put their application in soon and kiwis will have twenty days to send in a submission that says NO to mining the sea floor. If you join the KASM site they will alert you when the companies application is in. These type of companies and governing bodies love to try and slip through such criminal plans during holiday season when our feet are up or we are in the water more. So join KASM and please tell every kiwi you know about how Aotearoa's future is in danger.
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