Chatham Islands: hoping for early release from lockdown

With no Covid-19 cases and its economy desperate to restart, the Chathams is keen to go fishing again, writes Jim Kayes.

It shouldn’t really be a surprise. They are, after all, ahead of New Zealand by 45 minutes.

And though they are part of Wellington’s Rongotai electorate, the fiercely independent locals refer to the mainland of New Zealand as if it’s a different country.

So when Chatham Islands mayor Monique Croon says she thinks the archipelago – some 800km east of the South Island – could come out of lockdown early, it’s easy to dismiss it as another example of the usual rebellious streak.

But there is sense to what she says, because none of the islands’ 700 inhabitants have Covid-19. “We want to see if the Ministry of Health will let us self-isolate, rather than be in lockdown,” Croon says.

The request has to be made through the Canterbury DHB and, while Croon thinks it is logical, “I’m not going to be holding my breath.”

The last people to arrive flew in on Air Chathams just before the nation-wide alert-4 lockdown on Wednesday March 26. Since then, no one has reported to the medical centre with coronavirus symptoms. Croon insists that with the island confined to barracks, they should be okay.

Air Chathams founder Craig Emeny, left, with his son Duane, the company's general manager. Photo: Supplied

Duane Emeny agrees. Born and raised on “the Chats” – as the locals call their home – Emeny is general manager of Air Chathams, the company his father Craig started 35 years ago to fly live crayfish off the island.

Flying a Cessna 180, he would land on bumpy fields, load up and then head to Hawkes Bay with boxes of crayfish for export.

Those flights quickly became the lifeline to the islands – a main trunk line in the air. But just as the Chathams have relied on the airline for more than three decades, now the airline is relying on the Chathams to keep them flying.

“We’ve lost about 90 per cent of our business,” Emeny says.

Pre-lockdown, Air Chathams flew Auckland to Whakatane, Whanganui and Kapiti, once a week to Norfolk Island and freight from Auckland to Christchurch. In winter they would fly three times a week to the Chathams and in summer that rose to six flights.

All up, Air Chathams was in the air for 115 flights a week. Now, it’s just three, and all of those flights are to the Chathams.

“It’s still the most important part of our business and has been for the 35 years since Dad started the company,” Emeny says. “It’s what the island always needed. We are State Highway 1 for the Chats. We are the only way to get there, we’re that essential.”

Emeny says the airline will be okay for 12 weeks with a combination of the 144 staff taking pay cuts and a top up from the government’s subsidy package. “It’s what happens after those 12 weeks - and nobody really knows.”

Even when the alert drops to level three or two, Emeny isn’t sure whether people will be keen to fly again, especially in the close quarters of the small planes that Air Chathams uses.

Add to that, he says, the loss in income most companies are suffering and the rise of video conferencing through the Covid-crisis and business travel may have suffered a hefty long term blow.

Wild horses on Wharekauri Station, looking West to Maunganui Bluff in the far distance. Photo: Kina Scollay


Waitangi port is quiet on the Chathams. Normally bustling thanks to the fishing industry that provides about 75 percent of the Chathams economy, the boats are largely at anchor.

“Moana Fisheries hasn’t stopped, but we are idling,” says Pita Thomas, who owns Waitangi Seafoods and manages Moana Fisheries. He has about 25 boats under him and is sending just one a day out to sea.

Demand is fickle, Thomas says – an order from Auckland on Monday for 2.5 tonne of blue cod had dropped to just half a tonne by Thursday. So he’s wary of putting his boats to sea when he can’t rely on the demand to reflect his supply.

Elsewhere on the island, life is even quieter than usual. Hotel Chatham is closed, its new, nine-room accommodation block empty. The smattering of cafes are closed, too. All that remains open with any regularity are the general stores and two petrol stations, one of which Croon owns and which doubles as a hardware shop.

No worries about supplies though – despite a run on toilet paper like everywhere else around the world. “Everyone is keeping well,” Croon (elected mayor last year) says. “We have a team who are checking on people and making sure they have everything they need.

“There are a few quite scared people, but that’s only natural.”

She says the Chathams will be fine through April, “but by May and June, if they don’t go fishing – then we’re in trouble”.

Thomas’ son Ariki, 13, slipped back onto the island from school in Christchurch a day before the lockdown. Together they have fashioned a Flintstones- style gym on their three acre property. It keeps Ariki and his brother Tarzan busy while dad runs the business from a bedroom in the house.

Ariki Thomas works on out in the “gym" his father Pita Thomas fashioned from a fallen macrocarpa. Photo: Supplied

“We went into isolation when Ariki got home so it’s been a bit longer for us, but we are doing okay,” Thomas says.

He’s pleased the Island's borders have been closed but is firm in his belief that the shutters should have come down sooner. “It was a worry. Once the government put the subsidy in place for business, I thought we should have shut down then. If the virus takes hold here, we are history, but it looks like we’ve been lucky.”

And with a bit of luck, they hope, the DHB might give the Chathams an early release.

* Made with the support of NZ on Air *

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