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The Westport Harbour Board was created at the end of 1884 with the foundation stone of Westport Harbour being laid on the 2nd of February 1885.

The construction of the breakwaters began in 1886 in an effort to improve the port and its access.  By mid-May 1892 both breakwaters were completed.

Black gold

During the year of 1885 a total of 78,000 tonnes of coal was shipped through Westport Harbour. In 1897 the annual tonnage of coal was 298,000 tonnes.

By the start of the 1900s coal volumes had increased at such a rate that the size of ships had increased from 400 to 5,000 tonnes.  To cope with the increased depth of these ships the breakwaters were extended by 600 feet with work commencing in 1906, and being completed in 1920.

At this point the Harbour Board was on the verge of bankruptcy and control was handed over to the Marine Dept. in 1921.  

Tough times

A heavy decline of coal exports was experienced in the depression years and the decline continued until the 2nd World War. The opening of the Buller Gorge railway during this time diverted a considerable portion of coal.  

In 1966/67 the breakwaters were lengthened by another 300 feet.

On the 1st of September 1972 the Marine Department was abolished and the Marine Division of the Ministry of Transport assumed control of Westport Harbour.

In early 1988 the Government expressed a desire to remove itself from operating the Westport Harbour and held discussions with local councils (then the Westport Borough, and Buller District Council) offering the port and assets to them. Following discussions, the councils agreed to the offer and the government gifted the assets of the Westport Harbour along with a sum of money to cover deferred maintenance to the local authorities.

Changing hands

The assets of the harbour included the dredger Kawatiri, pilot vessel/tug “James O’Brien”, all wharves, jetties and navigation aids, harbour office and assorted buildings, and an engineering workshop complete with an extensive range of engineering plant and equipment.

On 1 July 1988 Buller Port Services entered into a contract for the management of the port and harbour on behalf of the Buller District Council.  Buller Port Services was a subsidiary of major port customer Holcim NZ Ltd.

On 1 September 2010 Buller Port Services ceased to manage the port, and Westport Harbour Limited took over the management under an agreement with Buller District Council.

From July 1988 major changes occurred within the harbour operation. Among these was the purchase of a hydrographic package enabling extremely accurate soundings to be carried out. The results allow precise loading to maximise cargo tonnage and enable the dredger Kawatiri to accurately target areas for clearance.

Over a three-year period from July 1997 until June 2000 coal shipments were made through the port using the largest barge in the Southern Hemisphere, 16,000 tons deadweight, “Union Bulk 1” (Sea-Tow Ltd).  The majority of the shipments were to Australia and the success of the operation, from a harbour viewpoint, can be directly attributed to the innovative approach by harbour staff to the export potential from the port of Westport. In 2005, 184,000 tons of coal was barged from the Port of Westport to Australia and Lyttelton.

Cement - a new driver

Until July 2016, Holcim NZ Ltd was the principal port user.  Its Cape Foulwind cement plant opened in 1958 with one kiln and the next 12 years saw the introduction of two further kilns.  In 1970 the company built two cement silos at Westport Harbour, each silo with a capacity of 2250 tonnes. Initially under the name Milburn New Zealand and then as Holcim NZ, the company shipped cement from the port of Westport on a weekly basis using their bulk cement ships Milburn Carrier II and Westport. On an annual basis up to 430,000 tons of cement was shipped from the Port of Westport to Onehunga, Wellington, Lyttelton, New Plymouth, Nelson, Dunedin and Picton. In 2013 Holcim announced the closure of its Westport plant in favour of silo facilities in Timaru and Auckland taking imported cement from Japan. The MV Westport took the final load of Cape Foulwind cement from the port on the 29th of June 2016.

Westport Harbour Ltd was a fully owned subsidiary of the Buller District Council's holding company Buller Holdings Ltd from September 1st 2010 until March 31st 2018 when the company was wound up and operations transferred back to council control.