A slightly whimsical note to start the year

I spent the last couple of weeks in one of my favourite places in New Zealand –  Whakatane/Ohope.   The beaches are great and the surf is safe, and it is pretty warm even when (as it did too often) it rains.  The local paper – the Beacon – runs a bleakly fascinating crime column of the sort all papers once did –  not just the bare details of names and ages, but accounts of episodes of mundane violence and repeated lack of self-control that come before the District Court each week. They include reports of judge’s comments –  a judge who has been around for a long time but still hears explanations or excuses that flabbergast him.  For an insight into what is, fortunately, like another world it is hard to beat.

One afternoon last week, we dropped in to the local museum, which is rather well done on a small scale.  Among the display panels was one that took me by surprise.  I didn’t jot down the exact words, but it was along the lines of “until the 1950s, Whakatane’s port handled more cargo than Tauranga did”.   These days, picturesque Whakatane handles sports fishing and sightseeing trips to Whale and White islands and not much more, but I’m old enough to remember a few coastal ships in Whakatane in the late 60s and early 70s  And I knew that Tauranga had been a late developer  (in the 1951 census Tauranga and Mount Mauganui combined had fewer than 11000 people). But I still made a note to check out this claim when I got home.

And sure enough, here is shipping data for 1949, from the 1950 New Zealand Official Yearbook.

total trade 1949

And sure enough, Whakatane then still had more shipping trade than Tauranga.  But I was also struck by how high Wellington stood, and by the prominence of Greymouth and Westport.  Bear in mind that in those days, coastal shipping was almost as important (even by volume transported) as overseas trade.  That explains Greymouth and Westport, in an economy heavily dependent on coal.  I wondered if the Wellington story was just about inter-island coastal shipping, but it isn’t.  Here are the overseas shipping volumes by port (sum of export and imports, in tons).

overseas tonnage 1949

Wellington was far and away the second largest port for overseas trade, with volumes almost two-thirds of those of Auckland.

And here, by contrast, is the value of merchandise trade by port for 2014.

total overseas trade 2014

Auckland remains the port handling the largest share of overseas trade, but now Tauranga is second (from 10th 65 years previously) while Wellington’s sea port did not much more overseas trade than New Plymouth. Wellington airport’s overseas freight trade narrowly edges out what SNZ reports as Parcel Post.

No doubt there is a variety of other factors going on.  Even as a coastal port, Whakatane with a shallow and difficult river bar  (and nearby Opotiki) couldn’t survive the advent of bigger ships and the removal of regulatory limits of road transport.  For Tauranga, the establishment of the Tasman mill at Kawerau, and the associated railway line to  the Mount, in the mid 1950s gave a significant boost to its trade.  And from the 1970s containerization focused foreign shipping trade in fewer and fewer ports.  But no doubt population changes matter as well.  The Tauranga urban area last year had a population of around 130000, and the combination of Auckland, Hamilton and Tauranga urban areas which had accounted for only around 20 per cent of the total population in 1951, were together almost 40 per cent of New Zealand’s total population last year.

As for Wellington, of course services exports are not in these data.  Then again, as a share of GDP services exports are barely higher than they were 20 years ago.