The Appeal against the Rena decision will be heard in the environment court in March and is set down for four weeks starting from March 6.
Three appeals are to be heard against the independent hearing panel decision to accede to the Rena owners and insurers request to leave the remainder of the wreck on the Astrolabe Reef.
The appeals are by Ngai Te Hapu Incorporated, Te Runanga 0 Ngai Te Rangi Iwi Trust, and Nga Potiki a Tamapahore Trust.
The Rena struck Astrolabe Reef on October 5, 2011 and subsequently broke up. Much of the wreckage near the upper reef has been cleared in the years since by ongoing salvage operations, but the bulk of the aft section of the wreck now lies in deep water at the base of the reef.
The owners and insurers sought consent to leave the remainder where it lies because of the increasing danger to the salvage contractors operating at about 50m depth.
There is also a claim that removing the wreck will cause a great deal of damage to the reef, and the popular diving and fishing location will continue to be barred to the public.
Russ Hawkins says the reef is continuing to thrive
Public access to the reef resumed in early April 2016 after being restricted for five years during the Rena salvage operations.
Forest & Bird and Nga Hapu o Motiti want the exclusion zone against fishing maintained, but the request is facing legal hurdles that are yet to be decided.
Russ Hawkins is among three Mount Underwater Club members who will again be appearing as expert witnesses, because among the hordes of scientists, engineers, academics and lawyers – they are the only ones who actually look at the reef, dive it and photograph it.
“We are experienced. These guys have done a huge amount of diving there and over many, many years and prior to (Rena) as well,” says Russ.
“We’ve done a lot of dives through the underwater club and photographs, and everything is thriving out there, absolutely thriving.
“There’s been ongoing testing. It’s very hard with the photos we have taken to define what is wreck and what is reef, there’s so much growth over everything.”
Even the lost containers scattered across the sea floor are growing fish.
The GPS locations of sunken containers were sent to commercial operators so they wouldn’t entangle gear or fishing nets.
“I’ve fished on some of those places and we have got tarakihi and snapper off them, and it’s a little tiny blip in the ocean, says Russ.
“It’s all broken down it doesn’t look like a container on the sounder it’s just like a bit of crumpled structure which is what it will be.
“So that’s made a habitat for the fish, and octopus. There’s one resident octopus I think he rides a Harley, he’s that big. We’ve let him go each time but he’s big.”
He’s of the firm opinion that continuing the salvage operation will just wreck the reef.
“I can’t see it being approved. Who’s going to pay for it? The insurers have gone way beyond what they had to do. So they could just say ‘Nah, stuff you, we have done more than we needed to’.
“It’s a bit like the Pike River Mine. If you think it’s safe, you go in.”
Russ is referring to the diving operation that will be required if the work to reduce the Rena aft section ever continues. The section is at the bottom of the reef in water 50-60m deep.
And as for protecting the re-opened reef from over fishing, Russ is among those arguing that mother nature is the reef’s best protection.
“In fact for the next couple of days nobody is going to be going there at all, south east, two metre swells,” says Russ.
“In fact Maketu Coastguard monitored the reef under contract for 70 days, I think it was. And I think for 45 of those days of all those days they couldn’t go there themselves - and they have got a pretty decent sort of boat.”
He points to the huge downtime the salvage companies experienced as they waited for weather windows during the years it took to whittle down the bow section and tidy up the debris field.