WELLINGTON • The massive earthquake that struck New Zealand this week has lifted the seabed around the South Island town of Kaikoura by several metres, putting the local fishing industry and whale-watching tourist operation at risk.
Shellfish delicacies such as abalone and lobster, which live on submerged rocks and reefs, have been hoisted out of the sea by the quake and will need to be relocated, the Ministry for Primary Industries said yesterday. Boats operated by Whale Watch Kaikoura are now largely stranded in their marina due to the reduced water depth.
The raised seabed is another blow to Kaikoura, which is reliant on tourism and fisheries for its economic survival.
The picturesque town of about 2,000 people, whose name translates from Maori as Meal-of-Lobster, has been cut off after the quake triggered huge landslides over coastal roads and railway tracks that will take months to repair.
While an inland road will soon be reopened, Kaikoura is likely to experience "a significant downturn in both international and domestic visitor arrivals in the short to medium term", said Dr Caroline Orchiston from the Centre for Sustainability at University of Otago.
"This will continue until the threat of aftershocks subsides and tourism infrastructure is back in place."
Whale Watch operates four catamarans capable of taking 100,000 people a year to the deep waters off the Kaikoura coast, where whales feed in the nutrient-rich currents.
Other operators offer chances to swim with dolphins and mingle with seals, making the town an exciting destination for tourists.
Tour operators in Kaikoura are concerned about the busy summer season approaching, Prime Minister John Key told Parliament after visiting the town earlier yesterday.
Whale Watch has indicated it will be able to operate for only two hours a day because of the impact of the raised seabed on its marina, he said. The solution may be dredging to deepen the channel, Mr Key said.
Government officials are working with the Kaikoura community to support the rebuilding of fisheries.
Professor Jeff Shima, director of the Coastal Ecology Lab at Victoria University in Wellington, said the images of uplifted rocky reefs covered with dying abalone, lobster and seaweed were striking.
"The extent of this uplift is not yet clear, but without question the affected areas will experience significant changes in the quantity and composition of marine life," he said. "Recovery could take years."