|THE LOST FIORDS MYSTERY||INVESTIGATE: APRIL 00|
To most of us, Fiordland is a
wilderness far, far away, from a time long, long ago. The ancient, dark and brooding forest that probably once rumbled to the tread of flesh-tearing dinosaurs, is an expanse too vast for the average New Zealander to even bother comprehending nearly 13,000 square kilometres at last count. The area is also officially one of the wettest on Earth, with average annual rainfall of up to seven metres in some remote corners. It is a place to easily get lost in and never be found...
...as indeed an entire population of moose discovered to their delight when they were released there two centuries ago for the benefit of hunters. Apart from a one hour long television documentary that focused almost entirely on a left-over piece of moose dung and a grainy photograph of an alleged moose scampering into the woods, none have been seen by humans for nigh on a hundred years.
But if you think the moose is the closest Fiordland gets to the wackiness of the TV series Northern Exposure, then youd be horribly wrong. No, our story gets a whole lot weirder than that.
So if you dont already have a steaming hot cup of coffee beside you, and your feet up, then I suggest you arrange both before settling down to read any further.
Astorm has whipped the already volatile Tasman
sea into a fury. Four metre waves lash the rocks
at the entrance to Doubtful Sound with a surge
so powerful that even on the sea bed 90 metres below the sand is being stirred up by each wave.
A southerly gale, carrying the breath of Antarctic ice, heralds an early winter, and the two fishermen on their small lobster boat shrink deeper into the warmth of the cabin and the glow of the stove as a billy boils tea.
Although their own craft is some four kilometres inside Doubtful Sound, sheltered by an island, the sea is still running a good two metre swell out in the channel.
But as one of the men gazes across the inlet his attention is suddenly captured a black mass breaks through the waves less than a hundred metres away, seawater draining from it like waterfalls. Even in the dusky twilight, the outline of a submarine is obvious to the fishermen.
It is not the first time theyve seen a submarine at Fiordland, and it probably wont be the last, but with the news media full of reports of fishermen getting ridiculed after claiming to have seen submarines around New Zealand, these men are bright enough not to bother calling it in not to the daily media at any rate.
Within 90 seconds, the underwater ship has gone sinking back into the inky depths of Doubtful Sound that plunge from 90 metres at the entrance to a staggering 421 metres deep (1400 feet) within the Sound itself.
Such reports have become part of local folklore in Fiordland, but theyve taken on an intriguing new significance this year as environmentalists try to find out why, in 1978, the then Prime Minister Rob Muldoon arbitrarily decided to make changes to the national park status of Fiordland.
When the park was first Gazetted in 1905, the fiords were included within the national parks boundaries. To self-confessed greenies like Ruth Dalley and Lance Shaw, it appears perfectly logical that the fiords should be protected within the boundaries of Fiordland National Park, "otherwise they may as well call it just Land National Park," Dalley quips.
But the strange reality is, that by Order in Council in 1978, the Muldoon government mysteriously decided to remove the fiords from Fiordland National Park. And nobody is willing to say why. A few years after the protection was lifted, however, reports began to surface that Muldoon had done a military deal with the United States to allow top-secret submarine facilities to be established at two locations in the South Island one of which was Dusky Sound in Fiordland. The reports were laughed off as flights of fancy, despite the fact that New Zealand was already an integral part of the US signals intelligence network Echelon through bases at Waihopai and the observatory at Black Birch.
Could the appearance of American nuclear strike submarines in the fiords of Fiordland in apparent defiance of our Nuclear Free Zone legislation, have anything to do with the out-of-the-blue decision to remove national park protection for the fiords below the waterline? It was a link that environmental groups never made, but now theyre starting to wonder.
Dalley and Shaw run a charter boat business in
the Fiordland sounds but, unlike 22 other com
mercial operators, they dont catch fish. Instead,
using their 20 metre motorised yacht Breaksea Girl, they offer ecology tours of the Sounds, diving and scientific research facilities.
"We are the only vessel on the Fiordland coast who will not accept charters involved in any form of extraction from the environment," they say in their brochure. "We believe that we are the only small business in New Zealand that is offsetting the cost of environmental research by selling spare berths on scientific charters to tourists. We will personally carry any financial loss if these berths are not sold, to allow research to continue.
"We actively encourage other tour operators to become more environmentally aware and to look seriously at adopting non-extractive, low impact activities."
If it sounds in that last paragraph as if some tension
Lance Shaw is a former Department of Conservation officer who skippered the research vessel Renown for 12 years and who remains, with Ruth, an honorary fisheries inspector in the region. Shaw comes highly recommended in conservation and research circles, having worked with people like Jacques Cousteau, National Geographic magazine, New Zealands Wild South documentary crews and numerous scientists from this country and overseas.
One ringing endorsement comes from no less a character than Professor David Bellamy, who wrote: "I have travelled the world for the past 45 years and one of the best 6 days wilderness adventuring I ever spent was a trip to the Snares in the safe hands of Lance Shaw."
Shaw is also an accomplished underwater photographer, his work being published internationally, and their charter boat business, Fiordland Ecology Holidays, was a finalist in the 1997 and 1998 Tourism Awards, and a winner last year.
But no amount of professional recognition is going to compensate for the aggro theyre getting over their push to have the fiords re-absorbed into the protective boundaries of the national park.
"Locally, Lance and I are seen as the Greenies," explains Ruth Dalley. "Weve had our house threatened to be burnt down. Were both honorary fisheries officers and a local fishermen threatened to throw me in the river if I boarded his boat."
The growing gulf between the two sides is hard on Shaw, he himself was a poacher turned gamekeeper a deer hunter and crayfisherman before he took a more ecological bent.
"Lance has got some very old, loyal friends who respect him as a man but cant understand why were so passionate about the fiords, but we do have a small group of people that understand why were doing it."
The couples passion was not ignited by a desire to hunt submarines, although like others in the area they were aware of their presence. Instead, as ecologists and marine researchers they were aware that without statutory protection, the unique underwater wilderness of Fiordland was being harmed, mainly through overfishing.
To understand their excitement about the area, one first has to appreciate what it offers.
Formed by massive glaciers of
ice some 15,000 years ago,
the fiords are effectively
mountain ranges that were swamped by the sea when the last iceberg melted. The entrance, or sill, to each of the Sounds, where the sea comes in, is relatively shallow the deepest entrance is only 90 metres but if youd been a cave dweller standing on the crest of the sill looking inland, you would have seen a deep rocky valley dropping hundreds of metres even further, well below sea-level.
On the seaward side of the sill, looking out towards Australia, is a massive underwater cliff. If the sea were removed, a cave dweller who decided to jump would plummet several kilometres before smashing to a stop at the bottom of the Tasman sea-bed. It is only at the southernmost fiords that a continental shelf extends out from the sill, and then only for a few hundred metres.
Most of the fiords are still fed by glacial rivers that pump millions of litres of fresh water into them every day, and its that fresh water that creates a unique marine environment.
Depending on how much rain theres been, a layer of fresh water up to 10 metres deep sits on the surface of the fiords. This achieves two things: firstly, the freshwater runoff into the fiords often contains glacial silt and soil, making it very dark. This blocks sunlight from reaching the seawater sitting beneath, which in turn means that a lot of deep-sea marine species that cant tolerate sunlight can be found and studied by divers only a few metres from the surface, instead of having to use the kind of deep-sea submersibles that located the wreck of the Titanic.
Secondly, the fresh water layer on top of the sea water has forced marine life to adapt to the conditions, and some of the fish and marine species found in the fiords have never been seen anywhere else in the world. Black coral, for example, is an internationally protected species that grows in forests out from the sheer walls underwater. It is illegal to remove any piece from the water, but there is no penalty for killing it with crayfish pots or fishing line sinkers snapping fragile branches off.
"Its like a marine version of the Amazon rainforest. Now theyre burning the forest so fast that species are becoming extinct before theyve even been discovered, and the same thing is going to happen to Fiordland: by the time they realise what a unique ecosystem they had there, commercial and recreational fishers will have destroyed the balance," bemoans Dalley.
"Blue cod used to be so plentiful that theyd use them as bait in the crayfish pots. Now you can fish all day for a week and never catch one."
But there is a third complicating factor in the marine life of Fiordland. In a normal harbour the sea washes over a shallow seabed. There is plenty of sunlight capable of reaching the harbour floor and therefore the food chain can utilise virtually the entire seabed for the maintenance and creation of sea life. But the fiords are different. Carved out of mountains, the sea bed is a whopping 400 metres further down, in total darkness, and not capable of supporting much marine life. Any local, as opposed to transient, marine creatures must live on the steep sides of the underwater fiords or die. And because the sunlight doesnt penetrate very far, the actual living space on the fiord walls is not from sea level down to sea bed instead it is from sea level down to about 40 metres.
For decades it was presumed Fiordland had plenty of fish and it did but when stocks began to run down in the eighties and nineties, scientists realised there may be a problem. Despite the huge area covered by the fiords, and the fact that they share a coastline of almost 1,000 kilometres, the office of the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment notes that "The deep water and steep relatively flat interface between land and water in the Sounds limit the habitat for fish and crustacean life.
"The habitat area in Fiordland marine waters is 46 square km (or about half the area of Wellington Harbour)."
Little wonder, then, that the fish are running out.
"What are we going to do with it?" asks Shaw. "How much extraction can you expect to take out of an area half that of Wellington harbour? New Zealanders believe they have rights to taking a catch of fish, and that this is regarded as a fundamental aspect of being a New Zealander. But the first question, surely, is how big is the area, what is there, and is extraction at all possible?. The answer is quite clearly and emphatically No.
"Commercial fishing in Fiordland is not stable. Fishermen are fishing harder, taking more risks, fishing more pots for the effort, and still the catch is going downhill," Shaw told delegates to a symposium on the problem last year.
"At present, twenty of the twenty-one charter boats (another has since joined the fleet) are engaged in fishing. This is not regarded as commercial fishing, however the take is significant. The charter fleet has the capacity to cater for 234 people, all amateurs with rights to catch their daily bag limit.
"The fiords, with a habitat area half that of Wellington harbour, must potentially supply on an annual basis:
351,000 fin fish
"That total is just the catch for the charter boats, and does not include the commercial catch. In some areas the blue cod and groper are gone, only spotties remain to be caught. We cannot go on ducking the issue. It is not only about fish and fishing, but about the entire biodiversity.
"For example, the only way to set a craypot within the fiords is to slide it down the rock wall. What happens to the fragile organisms living on the rock? One thousand craypots inside the fiords will destroy a kilometre of fiord habitat, on a daily basis. It is not sustainable.
"Where are the crayfish? People can relate tales of catching tonnes of crayfish inside the fiords, within living memory, but now less than half a dozen boats make a living inside the Sounds."
Of course, it is easy to sit back and say this is a perfect example of self-regulating market forces that with fewer fishermen there because of dwindling returns, the stocks will get a chance to replenish. They might, but human history is littered with hundreds of people who claim to have shot, killed, bludgeoned, fished or eaten the "last" of this species or the other the last moose in Fiordland for example or the last huia to get its feathers plucked for a traditional cloak only those responsible dont usually realise it is the "last" of the creatures in question until such time as no more turn up.
In other words, the Russian-roulette theory of sustainable fishing doesnt exactly hold water.
What Shaw, and others, want is for the Government to buy back the fishing quota and licences of the commercial operators so the fiords can replenish over a generation or so.
In the opposing corner, crayfishermen led by John
Steffens, whos set up an organisation to represent the
rights of cray fishers in the region. In a newsletter to
members last September, he briefed them about the same symposium Shaw addressed, the Marine Sciences Society Conference in Wellington.
"Sue Greham and myself attended this conference in Wellington. Why the MSS conference? Well, this body of considerable standing in scientific (and lately political) circles, has been somewhat hijacked by the radical greenies. They are the guys that are pushing the protection of the Fiords, excluding you guys and filling the place with scientists earning heaps of money studying the occurrence of sexually transmitted disease in tube worms, or some other ground-shattering revelation that will be of immense value to humanity.
"The first address we listened to did not disappoint us. It was from this lady from Forest and Bird. She wanted 90% of the inner fiords and up to 50% of the outside coast out to 200 miles in [marine] reserve.
"She did, however, very charitably state that sustainable fishing could occur in what was left.
"This was followed by this gentleman, whom I wont name but lives in Manapouri and runs an eco-tourism business, who had some incredible figures on the damage being done by lobster pots.
"He had worked out that pots were causing 1000 square metres of destruction to the inner fiord environment per day. I carried this calculation a bit further and found that this equated to 365 square kilometres per year, or 36,500 sq km of destruction since lobster fishing started.
"This means you naughty lobster potters out there have destroyed Fiordland 36 times over. No wonder the bloody things are so deep, youve worn them out!
"Now you and I would dismiss emotive stuff like this as a bit of a joke. The scary thing is he bloody near got a standing ovation from the supposed scientific brains of this country. Some of whom presented later papers which promoted the fiords as being pristine.
"I tell you this to let you know what we are up against," concludes Steffens. "People who you would assume know better, are being brainwashed by this sort of stuff. We are becoming the biggest threat to the environment in these peoples eyes, mainly due to our piss poor record of presenting our fishery in a positive light in forums like this."
Understandable though Steffens viewpoint is,
it doesnt change some fundamental realities,
such as the big drop in cray and fish numbers.
Nor does it explain away a Government scientific report by Ken Grange of the New Zealand Oceanographic Institute, back in 1990.
Granges report was the first to establish just how fragile the Fiordland marine eco-system actually was.
"This unique marine system contains rare and unusual species; many have not yet been named, and probably several are yet to be discovered. The system provides a living laboratory for research into their biology and ecological requirements.
"The visually dominant species, large black coral colonies, are also valuable as a source of raw product for jewellery.
"The fiords are not pristine. They have been used extensively for commercial rock lobster and paua fishing, netting of bait fish for rock lobster pots, and for recreational collecting of scallops, and rock lobster, spearfishing and fishing.
"Proposals have been put forward for the export of fresh water, seabed mining, building concrete platforms for oil rigs, sewage disposal, dredging and tourist development. Ideas for salmon farming are being formulated."
Further in his report is the scientific confirmation that no one has been able to refute.
"The zone of diverse life is very narrow; from six metres to around 40 metres deep on the rock walls. This is a thin, fragile, veneer which is remarkable for the high proportion of long-lived, slow-growing, deep water species which have not colonised subtidal reefs elsewhere in New Zealand.
"Over one half of all coastal fish species likely to be seen in New Zealand waters, the worlds largest population of black coral, the worlds most diverse brachiopod fauna, several new species of marine animals, and many rare species occur in this extremely small area.
"Within such a small area, resources can rapidly be over-exploited. For instance, the theoretical effect to Milford Sound of a party of ten divers in a single weekend can be assessed:
"Each face of Milford Sound is 16 kilometres long, and most of the rock lobsters accessible by scuba occur between 10 and 30 metres deep. A diver could easily explore 400 metres of rock face 10-30 metres deep in a single dive.
"Assuming two dives per day for the 10 divers, this party could completely search one entire face of Milford Sound (and remove any rock lobsters seen)."
Presuming of course, that there were any left to catch. But as Ken Grange notes, "This places severe pressure on the rock lobster population and explains why amateur catches have declined."
The same pressures apply to other species, with Grange citing the example of an Easter fishing trip for 42 anglers fishing from 12 boats in three of the fiords, who caught only two blue cod between the lot of them during the three day trip.
And if the pressures of not catching any fish
arent bad enough for charter boat operators,
then theres the added hassle of being buzzed
by low-flying US military aircraft.
"Lance was in the Camelot River [at the head of Bradshaw Sound] last year," explained Ruth Dalley, "and a military plane went over them so low and its very high mountainous country there that everybody actually ducked. Now we take people to the Camelot River because it is so quiet and so beautiful, and its like a really old, ancient forest, and we sail in with the tide and out with the tide and its just exquisite. But he said it was like outer space, because all of a sudden they had this aeroplane just over the top of them."
What Dalley and Shaw didnt know is that Fiordland is being used by US Special Forces soldiers for training missions with New Zealands elite SAS. In the bestselling book State Secrets, published last year, author Ben Vidgen himself a former soldier recounts how he stumbled upon secret Fiordland military activity.
"This information, about the NZ SAS training the US Rangers, originally a mess hall rumour, was confirmed by former SAS Warrant Officer Neil Lumsey during an interview," Vidgen writes.
"Indeed, the circumstances that led me to contact Lumsey were strange to say the least. During my time in Queenstown Id become aware of visits by an unmarked Hercules aircraft and I mean unmarked. This plane was on the tarmac at Queenstown Airport and it was painted jet black.
"It stuck out like a polar bear with a machine gun: there were no insignia, no identifying markings of any sort not even markings to indicate where the fuel tanks were.
"The aircraft, it transpired, was a frequent visitor to the region and has sometimes been observed by hunters, carrying out manoeuvres deep inside Fiordland national park.
"I was unable to trace the origins of the aircraft officially, with Civil Aviation, the RNZAF and the SIS all declining to comment in any meaningful fashion. However, Lumsey and [former RNZ Army intelligence analyst] Les Gee have indicated the aircraft is a US Special Forces troop transport carrying American commandos down for special operations in New Zealands South Island."
Other charter boat skippers report also seeing RNZAF transport planes and also Australian Airforce F111 swing-wing fighter bombers in action over Fiordland.
All of which explains the low flying military aircraft buzzing charter boats in the fiords, but where does the US Pacific Fleets nuclear strike submarine force fit in?
US defence intelligence sources have indicated
to Investigate, "without wishing to confirm or
deny", that the huge US Antarctic research fa
cility at McMurdo Base may serve a dual purpose: providing nuclear refuelling facilities for US submarines and giving their crews a chance to breathe real, albeit icy, air.
Because of the Earths strong magnetic fields over the poles, spy satellites are unable to "see" the nuclear submarines in those areas, which is why the US and Russian subs spend time in both the Arctic and Antarctic circles. In addition, orbiting the poles provides the submarines with easy rapid deployment if required to any ocean.
The US aircraft and ship movements through Christchurchs Harewood base not only restock the scientists at McMurdo, but also the below-ice facility for the submarines.
Unaware of the allegations that US nuclear submarines are based at McMurdo, another Fiordland charter boat operator tells of a retired US Navy commander whod hired their boat for a tour of the sounds.
"His job in the Navy was tracking submarines," the charter operator says, helpfully, "and basically. If you saw the movie The Hunt For Red October, his job was the one portrayed by Denzel Washington. But during our trip he remarked that the American Trident submarines hide just off the Fiordland coast, because theres a major anomaly in the magnetic field there, and a bloody deep hole that the spy satellites cant penetrate. "
The area hes talking about is just south of Preservation Inlet, the bottom-most of the fiords, and covers an area out to the Solander Islands further southeast. On marine charts, skippers are warned that they cannot trust their compasses in that area because of a magnetic field "discrepancy".
So apart from the obviously disquieting prospect that, in the event of a nuclear war, New Zealanders will get front row seats to a massive missile launch from an undisclosed location close to Stewart Island, hurtling north past Auckland to some unfortunate target in the northern hemisphere, how does this explain nuclear submarines in Doubtful Sound or Preservation Inlet? Quite simply: fresh water.
The nuclear submarines are designed to stay underwater for six months to a year, always patrolling in the black depths of the worlds oceans. But six months is a long time between drinks.
New Zealands fiords, most of them over a thousand feet deep, carry a surface layer of brackish, but nonetheless fresh, water. Coupled with the protection of the magnetic field anomaly, and the extra shelter of deep fiords embraced either side by sheer megaliths of granite and minerals, it becomes convenient and easy for the subs to slip in during the night, rise close to the surface, pump in fresh water for chemical cleansing and subsequent use in the sub, and slip out again to continue patrolling.
There is no hard proof to support this explanation, of course, but it certainly fits the known facts.
At the end of the day, though, Lance Shaw and
Ruth Dalley arent overly fussed about whether
the US Navy pops in for coke and fries, but
they say if it was one of the reasons for the Muldoon governments decision to remove protection for the fiords "below the waterline" in 1978 then it wasnt a good enough reason.
No one, they say, can realistically prevent the wolves of the sea from hiding around the New Zealand coast, and the Labour administration would be asking for a much bigger fight with the US than it already has with the F16 deal if it tried to interfere. For all we know, the RNZAF and New Zealand Defence Force may well be aware of the arrangement, and use it to hone their own submarine tracking skills on the Orions.
So aside from the glamour and the mystery of things that go "ping" in the night, the environmentalists say the new Governments best option is to re-establish the fiords as marine reserves: at least that way we can fine the Yanks if one of their subs breaks a piece of black coral.
Theres some indication they may be in luck after more than a decade of political lobbying on the issue, Shaw and Dalley have a collection of written replies from politicians calling for action to preserve Fiordlands unique marine environment. Whats more, some of those sympathetic politicians are now cabinet ministers.
BUY THIS ISSUE
COMMENT & DISCUSSION BOARDS