Chatham Islanders seek more independence, profits

In the wake of hoopla over 2000's first sunrise, archipelago asks

When the sun rose over these far-flung islands on the first day of 2000, it was the end of years of work. For a few minutes, the islands' 750 residents got the worldwide attention they had been chasing as the first inhabited place on earth to see the sunrise each day.

But for the fishermen and farmers who live in these islands 550 miles east of New Zealand seeing the dawn of the year 2000 also meant seeing a revival of tensions with mainland New Zealand.

The Chathams are the only significant land masses between New Zealand and Chile, thousands of miles farther east. They have been trying for years to gain added autonomy from the New Zealand government, including the right to manage their own rich fisheries. The ruggedly individualistic islanders - who don't consider themselves New Zealanders and insist on referring to mainland New Zealand not as the mainland, but as "New Zealand" - distrust outsiders and anyone with a hint of authority.

"It's a time when New Zealand itself can look at what needs to happen to help these tiny islands survive," says Pat Smith, the islands' longstanding mayor.

Among the Chatham Islands' chief resources are the rock lobsters, black abalone, and blue cod they pull from the coastal waters. But to prevent overfishing, government-imposed quotas on fishing have been tightened over time, making survival for young fishermen a difficult proposition.

MR. Smith and other island leaders also accuse the mainland government of letting fishermen from New Zealand plunder the islands' resources farther offshore, making it even more difficult for local fishermen. "It's hard enough to catch your fish without someone else catching them for you," says a fisherman in the settlement of Kaingaroa, the place where the crew of a British Navy ship first met with the islands' indigenous Moriori in 1791.

Last year the government collected some NZ$750,000 (US$390,000) in "compliance" levies meant to fund the regulation of the local fishing industry. But it spent just NZ$150,000 to put one fishing inspector on the island, says Lea Clough, a retired abalone diver and former secretary of the islands' fishermen's association. "The amount of illegal fishing is very high here. We should have three or four inspectors for that price," he says.

The islands are home to thousands of sheep and cattle, and farming is the other main occupation. But because of high transportation costs, that industry is struggling too.

THAT leaves tourism in many people's minds as the potential savior for the Chathams. There are now just 66 hotel beds on the island, though, and reaching the island is expensive. Round-trip airfare from New Zealand to the biggest island in the group, Chatham Island, costs more than a ticket from New Zealand to Australia.

Smith, Mr. Clough, and others on the island worked for years toward staging the New Year's celebrations as a way to draw more tourists. The New Zealand government gave NZ$400,000 to the islanders to help subsidize the party.

The islands also gave themselves a makeover. Clough rushed to finish his new home to house a group of journalists, while the Waitangi hotel added a new wing. For a cosmetic touch-up, Clough's son was dispatched to clear sheep carcasses that would normally decompose along Chatham Island's gravel roads.

It paid some dividends. The islands' population almost doubled for the New Year's celebrations. But most of the 650 visitors were here to see family or friends.

Among the 50 actual tourists were an English couple who won a newspaper contest to see the first sunrise and an eccentric Australian millionaire, dressed in a Napoleon suit, who arrived with a party of friends in his private jet. A former Russian research ship cruised through before the new year with a group of bird watchers.

But the attention from tourists and the world's media also came at a cost and not everyone wanted it. "You live in the middle of nowhere just to get away from these people," says fisherman Stephen Butterfield.

A heavily scripted ceremony on a remote cliff top was broadcast live to millions around the world. The endless rehearsals, however, upset some locals.

But after the media hordes left and the government's people on the ground returned to the capital of Wellington, the Chatham Islands still know they were on to a good thing in some ways.

Next year, when the millennium technically begins, there will be people in the Chathams trying to take advantage again.

Sally Lanauze, whose family owns 50 acres on the archipelago's tiny Pitt Island, says there will be one difference, though, when it comes time to bring the world back to the Chathams:

"I guess we will be wiser in the future."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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