Wanganui Midweek | 8 March 2018
In the spring of 2017, Whanganui surgeon Athol Steward undertook a two-week, 400km epic coastal hike from Raglan to Whanganui.
It was not madness that drove him, but rather incredulous anger at the decision of the Environmental Protection Authority (EPA) to allow TransTasman Resources to go ahead with controversial seabed mining off the Taranaki coast.
Dr Steward turned that anger into action, and not content to just verbally protest, he decided to ‘walk the walk for our Ocean’. He threw his lot in with Kiwis Against Seabed Mining (KASM) and decided to back their High Court appeal against the EPA’s ruling. The walk was a great success, raising over $10,000 via a Givealittle page to support KASM, and raising awareness by simply talking to everyone he encountered.
The Environmental Protection Authority Act 2011 requires the EPA to contribute to the effective and transparent management of New Zealand’s environment and natural and physical resources. It is this “transparency” — or lack of — that Dr Steward takes issue with.
“Many people were completely unaware that the proposed mining procedure is experimental, and just didn’t understand the implications of it,” says Dr Steward. “It will be New Zealand’s biggest open-cast mine, but under water.”
Two weeks with mostly just the sea for company has heightened his commitment to campaigning for the environment, especially the marine environment that he has such a passion for. Now in order to make a difference, it is time to get political.
“I had a lot of time on the coast to think about what I would do when I got back,” says Dr Steward. “I realised that to make a difference for the environment you have to influence the policymakers. I personally don’t enjoy politics, but I will do it for this cause.”
While he has close ties to organisations such as Save our Seas, KASM, Reeflife and Greenpeace, and plans to work with both local and national government, Dr Steward is happy to remain independent at this stage.
“I have to get out there and do things, and I don’t want to be beholden to someone else’s agenda.”
He is adamant that saving the planet does not have to mean losing money, and that we have to start thinking of the economic benefits in terms of fisheries and tourism that would come from keeping our ocean pristine.
“Mining is a quick fix. It will provide money and jobs for a few years. But at what cost? The damage that will be done to the environment is irreparable, and we do not know how much we will permanently lose. The seabed is not a desert as TransTasman Resources have tried to make out. It is a rich marine environment, completely unspoiled.”
Now the walk is over, but for Athol Steward the journey has just begun. The hardest part is yet to come, but he is motivated by his passion for the ocean.
“When you stand on the coast and look out, you see this vast expanse of unspoiled nature, no ships on the horizon, nothing but a handful of recreational fishing boats. When you turn around and look inland, the evidence of human influence is so obvious in contrast.
“The sea is the last bastion of untouched New Zealand, and we have a responsibility to preserve it.”