All photos by Ryan Craig.
The courtroom felt comically small, like a halogen-lit shoebox, even before people started cramming in. Tucked away on the basement floor of the Wellington High Court, the nondescript space seemed unceremonious, like where you'd go to protest a traffic ticket—not a venue for legal proceedings that could decide the fate of nearly 2,000 square miles of marine habitat. Yet one by one, a small regiment of black-robed lawyers filed into the room to speak for or against a highly-controversial seabed mining proposal. Behind them were dozens of spectators clamoring for the handful of seats in the cramped gallery, with spillovers grabbing chairs from the hall outside and blocking the walkway. The judge frowned at this chaos from the bench and signaled the court officer to clear a path, and, while he was at it, to kick out the riff raff cluttering up the hearing.
"Mate, that's not exactly courtroom attire," said the officer, shaking his head and pointing to my denim jacket. "Come with me."
He escorted me out of the courtroom and into a hallway, where he said I could listen to the proceedings through a pair of tinny speakers if I kept quiet and didn't bother anyone. "Next time, remember your suit and tie," he quipped.
I wasn't the only surfer in the courtroom—just the only surfer who made the mistake of dressing like one. Forty-seven-year-old Phil McCabe can often be found walking barefoot around the parking lot at Raglan's Manu Bay or the nearby ecolodge, Solscape, where he hosts traveling surfers on the hunt for perfectly-wrapping lefts. But McCabe had found something resembling business attire and had flown from his laid-back beach enclave to stand with members of the environmental group Kiwis Against Seabed Mining—as well as Greenpeace, local Maori groups and numerous other concerned parties—who have been entrenched in the battle against seabed mining in New Zealand for years.
The High Court was hearing an appeal to a 2017 decision by the Environmental Protection Authority (EPA) to grant a permit for mining iron ore just offshore of New Zealand's west coast. It's controversial because it would be the first seabed mining operation of its kind anywhere on the planet, using heavy machinery to tear up massive chunks of the seafloor, keeping the valuable metals and spewing the unwanted sediment back into the water in vast dark plumes. While the scale of its potential environmental impact isn't yet known, scientists believe the effect on marine ecosystems will be catastrophic. Even without a comprehensive study of the mine's environmental impact, the concept is distasteful enough on its face to earn the collective scorn of everyone from large-scale industrial fishing groups to everyday surfers.
"It's just such an offensive proposal," McCabe had told me over coffee before heading to the courtroom that morning. "Anyone who spends time around the ocean gets it straight away and doesn't like the idea of it at all. It's not difficult to understand why tearing up the seafloor is a terrible idea."
McCabe has been involved in this fight since he started volunteering with Kiwis Against Seabed Mining (KASM) in 2012, when the same company currently trying to get a mining operation underway, Trans Tasman Resources (TTR), applied for their first EPA permit. McCabe doesn't come from a science or legal background, but as a longtime surfer, he's passionate about protecting New Zealand's coasts, and he showed a knack for spreading the word and organizing the resistance.
"The things you see every day, you start to feel responsible for," said McCabe of why he dove headfirst into the cause. "Unfortunately for me, I live high up on a hill in Raglan, so I can see a lot of coast and way out to sea."
McCabe set up community meetings in coastal towns up and down the North Island's western shores, organized long-distance walks and paddles (including one with Dave Rastovich that spanned over 200 miles) to raise awareness and he eventually became the chair of KASM.
In 2014, McCabe and KASM enjoyed a major victory when the EPA rejected the TTR permit application due to a lack of information about the environmental impact. But TTR wasn't ready to give up on the valuable iron-rich seafloor in New Zealand's South Taranaki Bight, which is why they put forward a new application in 2016. It was approved in a 2017 decision that shocked McCabe and his peers.
Huddled under the speakers in the hallway of the Wellington High Court, I could hear representatives from the South Taranaki Iwi—Maori tribes from the region who oppose the mining—as they led the room in a traditional Maori prayer before the proceedings began. For the appellants in the room, whether they were surfers, fishermen or indigenous people with deep cultural ties to the sea, this hearing gave cause for both hope and fear. They were hopeful that this judge, in this instance, would understand why their waters were worth protecting and rule against the mining company. But the threat seabed mining presents to oceans around the world is as mercurial as a dark plume of sediment drifting on a current, and there's an inherent fear in not knowing what form that threat might take or where it might pop up next.
Picture an enormous underwater bulldozer slowly crawling on its treads as it plows the seafloor. As it tears up vast swaths of sediment, it sends the material through a long tube to a collection vessel on the ocean's surface, leaving an excavation pit over 30 feet deep in its wake. Now picture that operation taking place over a roughly 40-square-mile area, where between 300 and 500 million tons of seabed could be sucked up and processed annually. Only about 10 percent of the material dredged up would be the iron ore sought by TTR, and the rest will be pumped back into the ocean, where plumes of the sediment will cover an estimated 2,000-mile expanse, drifting through the ocean in ways that cannot be accurately predicted at this time.
While it may sound like a sinister corporate scheme hatched in a distant dystopian future, that is the actual mining proposal tentatively permitted to occur along the west coast of New Zealand, a country known around the world for its pristine natural beauty. To find out how this could happen, and what this could mean for coastal areas around the world, our crew, consisting of Hawaiian surfers and environmentalists Cliff Kapono and Hank Gaskell, photographer Ryan Craig and myself, headed to New Zealand to meet with those battling to keep the mining at bay.
We left the bustling capital city of Wellington after the first day of the appeal hearing and hugged the coast on our way north toward Taranaki, where the proposed mining area sits just offshore. The region is named after Mount Taranaki, an 8,000-foot-tall dormant volcano responsible for the creation of the surrounding landscape. Its name means "shining peak" in Maori, which is an apt descriptor for its bright, snow-capped summit puncturing the clouds. In the shadow of Mount Taranaki lies a beautiful coastline, hundreds of miles long, with an abundance of fun points and beach breaks and numerous coastal communities that have become involved in the fight against seabed mining in their local waters.
This is especially true for the local Iwi, who have a connection to the Taranaki region that transcends Western concepts of land usage and ownership. They view the glimmering peak of Taranaki as an ancestor and whanau, or family member, and even went so far as to successfully lobby the government to grant the mountain legal personhood in 2017. That means that from a legal standpoint in New Zealand, any abuse or harm done to the mountain will be treated as harming the Maori people themselves.
Mount Taranaki isn't the first instance of Maori people asserting that a geographic feature deserves personhood, and it won't likely be the last. So it should come as no surprise that the local Iwi have been some of the most outspoken opponents of the proposed TTR mining operation. "We've had big protests in Patea (a majority Maori community in South Taranaki), and it's something that everyone here is aware of and engaged with," says Billy Tipene, a prominent member of the local Te Runagnga o Ngati Ruanui Iwi, and the Chairman of the Patea Boardriders' Club. "For such a small community, Patea has been very active in their opposition to seabed mining."
On our way north, we pull off the main road in Patea, which is the closest community to the proposed mining site roughly 22 miles out to sea. The road is lined by overgrown grass with one side dipping into a shallow valley where the Patea river snakes through the countryside and empties into the South Taranaki Bight. We park at an overlook where you can see a vast expanse of green, silty water with beachbreak peaks crashing onto long stretches of dark, iron-rich sand. From our vantage, the empty beach framed by staggering cliffs gave the area an almost prehistoric feel.
Far beyond the beach break, in the deeper waters off South Taranaki, swim creatures of prehistoric origin, chasing krill through the cold, nutrient-rich currents. Back in May, a team of scientists discovered that the South Taranaki Bight is home to its own genetically distinct population of blue whales. And while these creatures are typically considered to be migratory marine mammals, this group of over 700 blue whales native to the South Taranaki Bight are in fact permanent residents. The native blue whale is just one example of the many unique marine populations that inhabit the region that could be impacted by a large-scale mining operation.
According to Dr. Shaw Mead, a benthic ecologist and oceanographer who provided expertise in the recent appeal, the plumes of fine sediment that would be pumped back into the ocean from processing vessels are problematic for several reasons.
"First, it affects primary productivity, which is how much light can penetrate the water and allow phytoplankton to reproduce and convert sunlight into energy at the bottom of the food web," says Mead. "Second, when you suck up all that material, take away a fraction of it, and mix up the rest in processing vessels, what you're releasing back into the ocean has become a homogenous mix. That's not what naturally exists on the seabed. And right now, there's no good information about how that will impact the marine environment and food web." According to Mead, the number of unknowns in regards to environmental impact are what make the EPA's approval of the TTR permit so surprising. TTR's first permit application was denied in 2014 because the company hadn't done enough research into the potential ecological impacts. When it was approved in 2017, "There was no further work done with the new application with respect to ecological impacts," says Mead. Yet TTR still submitted more conservative estimates of the project's environmental impact, and managed to receive approval in a controversial split decision by the EPA's Decision Making Committee.
"It's a very unusual situation for a project like this to get approval with so little information," says Mead. "To give you an idea of the scale, it's like strip-mining the entire greater Wellington City area to a depth of 11 meters and then putting it all back again. You'd never be allowed to do something like this on land."
Because a seabed-mining project of this kind has never happened before, it's impossible to fully understand what the environmental impacts will be until mining has actually commenced. And because the investment required to build the necessary mining equipment is in the billions, no mining company wants to commit to a short-term permit with the possibility of extension once a proper environmental assessment has been made. TTR's application was for a 35-year permit, meaning that if the permit is allowed, whatever the scale of environmental impact ends up being, the damage will continue for over three decades. This could affect not only the delicate ecosystems of the South Taranaki Bight, but also the fishing industry that many local communities rely on.
Patea used to be home to a meat processing plant, which employed roughly 1,000 local residents and acted as the community's main economic engine. When it was shuttered in 1982 amid a downturn in the New Zealand meat industry, however, the community fell into turmoil. In some ways Patea has bounced back through dairy farming and fishing, but you can still see the broken down remnants of a more prosperous past when you drive down the main road, with many buildings permanently closed, their paint peeling and facades cracked. The possibility of sediment plumes decreasing fish stock in the region would add insult to injury for a community that has already suffered greatly at the hands of global economic forces.
"We live off the land and the sea, simple as that," says Tipene. "They're not taking into account our interests, as we rely on these waters for food and economic benefit. But more than that, they're not taking into account our culture. Our gods are the sea, the forest, the air, so an attack on these things are an attack on our cultural beliefs. That's unacceptable."
Getting to your feet and looking down the line at Indicators, it's immediately apparent why Raglan is considered the most iconic surf zone in all of New Zealand. At this particular lefthander, even on a lackluster swell with light onshore winds, uniform walls peel in front of the rock-lined point with dynamic turn sections, stretches of wide-open faces for carves and the occasional almond-shaped tube.
From my vantage on the outside, Kapono and Gaskell took turns disappearing as they dropped into the wrapping lefts halfway down the point. Every few yards for the length of a football field, you could see explosions of fins and spray as the two surfers belted the lip well into the inside.
They'd had plenty of backhand practice over the last week. From Patea, we'd been going no direction but left as we surfed our way up the west coast all the way to Ahipara at the jagged tip of the North Island. There, what looked like a perfect, Rincon-sized point from inside the bay turned out to be a nearly endless string of lefts as you keep traveling further around the corner. The further we went, the fewer surfers we saw, until eventually there were no surfers at all—just a herd of wild horses standing around on an exposed stretch of reef, looking generally unimpressed by the illogically-long waves peeling past them. When we finally did find the top of the point, we'd been driving for miles—"leg burners" doesn't even begin to describe the length of the waves that took us back into the bay.
All along the west side of New Zealand's North Island, most of the coastline is undeveloped and local surf breaks have an inherently pristine, wild quality. Sitting in the lineup at Ahipara, Piha or Raglan, watching dolphins swimming through swells or fish jumping as they chase bait balls through the cool, clear water, the thought of heavy equipment stripping the seafloor of life and leaving a literal black cloud in it's wake is difficult to comprehend.
McCabe says that one of the greatest things about living in New Zealand is that you're never far from "wild places." Ironically, his fight to protect these places has actually led to him spending less time enjoying them. As chair of KASM, McCabe spent countless hours organizing meetings, lobbying media and trying to raise awareness by any means possible.
"I was going pretty hard at it for a good five years," McCabe says. "At a certain point, I realized that everything else in my life had become second to the work we were doing with KASM. I'd literally be looking out my window at good waves and then just put my head back down and keep working on emails. It's an odd thing when your love of surfing makes you want to defend the ocean, even when doing that keeps you from surfing [laughs.]"
You can see the fruits of his labor up and down the coast. KASM's grassroots message fostered a massive groundswell of support, and today you can find KASM signs lining coastal roads and KASM bumper stickers in the parking lots of every wellknown surf break. When McCabe did find time to get in the water, his hard work had earned him plenty of goodwill around Raglan, with the local crew hooting him into a few gems regardless of who was in the number one spot.
By 2017, however, the fight had started taking its toll on McCabe, and he realized that he'd been neglecting other aspects of his life, including running his eco-lodge, and he decided to step down as chair of KASM. He continues to be involved, but has left the majority of the organizational duties in the hands of longtime environmental lobbyist Cindy Baxter.
After our session at Indicators, we headed back to McCabe's eco-lodge, Solscape, for a lunch mostly of vegetables pulled from the many gardens dotting his sprawling property. Since McCabe purchased the grounds in the early 2000s, he's set out to create the most environmentally conscious accommodations he can. Some of the rooms are repurposed train cars and others are "earth domes," which are essentially cozy rotunda huts build from recycled bags insulated with clay. Standing in the garden, overlooking Solscape's sprawling grass yard and the pristine bay below, you understand McCabe's desire to protect what he sees everyday.
According to McCabe, stepping down as chair of KASM was necessary for him to create a sense of balance in his life, but he wasn't walking away from the fight, just recognizing a need for new tactics. KASM has already indicated that in the event that the Taranaki permit is upheld by the High Court, they're prepared to take the case all the way to the Supreme Court. But while New Zealanders wait for the final decision on this particular seabed-mining permit, countless potential mining sites are being explored elsewhere in the world, and McCabe plans to get involved in the fight on an international level.
In the Pacific Ocean, between Mexico and Hawaii, there's a stretch of seabed roughly the size of Europe called the Clarion-Clipperton zone, which is rich in polymetallic nodules (basically large chunks of valuable metals embedded in the seafloor). Because this area is more than 200 nautical miles offshore from any sovereign nation, it falls under the jurisdiction of the International Seabed Authority (ISA), a United Nations committee tasked with regulating the exploitation of natural resources in international waters. At the time of writing, at least a dozen exploration permits for the Clarion-Clipperton zone have already been issued by the ISA to mining companies around the world. The ISA is currently developing exploitation regulations—the criteria under which these companies can break ground and begin excavating the seabed—and unless they're met by significant opposition, these companies are expected to start mining operations in the next five to ten years.
"It's definitely going to become a bigger issue in the coming years," says Duncan Currie, an environmental lawyer who worked with KASM on their recent appeal and has also worked on seabed mining issues with the ISA. "We're talking about very large sums of money when it comes to these mining operations. In March, MIT said that the capital expenditure for each application is expected to be about $3 or $4 billion, with revenue of about $2 billion per year and costs of about $1 billion a year. So, very ballpark, you're talking about a potential $1 billion profit per year for each application."
Depending on the type of resource being extracted, the mining methods will differ in each application, but experts believe the risks will be much the same for most marine ecosystems. For that reason, McCabe hopes that the noise they've made in New Zealand will be heard around the world and serve as a rallying cry for the many battles sure to come.
McCabe and the many groups protesting seabed mining have at least made their mark in New Zealand's coastal communities. In surf shops and lineups from Wellington to Ahipara, many surfers are well aware of the issue and what's at stake. But if you ask McCabe, he'll tell you that's the easy part, and stopping the practice globally is going to require a more transcendent approach.
"As surfers, we're coastal people, so we understand these issues," he says. "We spend so much time sitting in the water, riding on it, walking by it, staring at it. We're connected to it and we care about it. The challenge is getting people who don't spend that kind of time with the ocean and don't have as strong a connection to it to protect it. How can we expect those people to care about these issues, unless we really care and stand up and do something? It's our job to show the world that this matters."