It is a port which is built on wholly reclaimed land and it has the biggest cold storage capacity in New Zealand and Australia, partly as a legacy of the huge Canterbury lamb carcase exports of about 100 years, from the 1880s to the 1980s.
In the early to mid 1800s cargo moved by longboat from anchored ships to a small shingle beach. The Landing Services Building, made from blue stone, at the bottom of George St overlooking the Timaru Railway Station was used from the 1870s onwards to house a large steam-powered winch to bring longboats laden with goods up ramps or slipways. Because of a number of ship losses on the coast, work started in 1877 on the development of an artificial port (one with no natural geographical harbour) by extending a breakwater from the shoreline under the cliff out into the surf. The breakwater caused shingle to build up behind it on the southern side, gradually producing reclaimed land, on which wool stores and a railway line were built. The shingle came down from the Mt Cook (Aoraki) region of the Southern Alps in the Waitaki River. On the north side of the breakwater Caroline Bay was created, now one of the safest beaches on the east coast of the South Island.
Much more reclamation has followed, giving PrimePort some 80ha of flat land, of which one-quarter is operating port, another quarter is leased out and the rest is either roading and reserve or available for development. An artificial port is one of the only businesses in the world that can actually make land, through reclamation.
PrimePort is owned 71% by the Timaru District Council and 29% by the private company Port Industry Holdings. It had port revenue of $22 million in the year to June 30, 2008 and made a profit after taxation of $2 million. It has equity of $65 million, assets of $74 million and liabilities of $8 million.
The port operates the tug Te Maru and is getting a second tug, to be called Aoraki.
95% of all exports (around 820,000 tonnes in 2007-08) through PrimePort came from the primary sector in Canterbury and Otago. Also 77% of the total container volume (total 80,000 units) were exports, and 23% were imports, showing that a much greater portion of the exports are containerized, often packed in premises on port land. Dairy products account for half of all exports through Timaru, originating from Fonterras big Clandeboye site and occasionally from other plants. Dairy tonnage last financial year was 350,000 tonnes. Next largest export product was logs, followed by meat, fruit and vegetables, tallow, fish, wool and then general cargo. The dairy tonnages have grown most in recent years, because of the large numbers of dairy conversions in Canterbury and North Otago, and the wool volume has shrunk with the decrease in sheep numbers.
The meat volumes through Timaru have remained static, even though livestock numbers have fallen, because lamb carcases have increased in weight and there is now more beef produced of dairy origin. PrimePort has five export meat plants within 100kms Pukeuri, Pareora, Smithfield, CMP Ashburton and Fairton. Timaru has 100,000 tonnes of cold storage space, much of it owned by Timaru businessman Alan Hubbard, where further processed meat is stored and packed into containers. The fishing and vegetable industries also use the storage, as does Fonterra, for butter and cheese. Fonterra uses a large modern dry goods store, built by the port company, sold to an investor and now leased to Fonterra which covers 22,000 square metres (2.2 hectares, 5.5 acres) and holds 35,000 tonnes of milk powders.
Storage is provided by the port company either on lease or rental for many export and import customers.
The two major cold storage companies are Coolpak, owned by port company chairman Syd McAuley, and Polar Cold, part of the Scales Group, owned by Alan Hubbard.
The processed vegetable industry is founded on French fries from McCains and Talleys and on fruit exporting.
The fish industry is very important to Timaru, which is New Zealands second-largest fishing port, with operators Sanfords and Talleys having processing plants next to the PrimePort fish harbour. Numerous inshore fishing boats operate up to 20km out for domestic sales, usually owner-operators. The big companies operate ocean-going factory trawlers, which travel long distances to the fishing grounds, process the catch on board and stay away for days and weeks. The filleted, cartoned and frozen products then are stored on land in cold stores before export in containers.
Container ships call at least once a week from two lines Maersk and Hamburg Sud to pick up a mix of dry and refrigerated containers with all the primary produce. The ships call on the same day every week because scheduling is critical for time-sensitive cargoes like chilled meats and fruit.
Multi-purpose ships from the Tasman Orient Line also call regularly to pick up dry cargoes like timber and logs as well as containerized cargo.
All transit times are kept as short as possible for speed and efficiency.
Many imports come in bulk forms, such as fertilizer, liquids and fuels, chemicals and supplementary feeds like palm kernel extract. The fertilizer comes in box-hulled vessels and is unloaded by ships crane with a grab, lifting 2T at a time, into hoppers on the wharf, which trucks drive under to be filled and take the products away to Ravensdowns Seadown store and Ballances Washdyke store.
Palm kernel is a growing import, with a new 40,000 tonnes store being built by RD1 and a partner at Washdyke. PKE is unloaded by the same methods as fertilizer.
Timaru handles a lot of grain, particularly barley, from South Canterbury arable farmers to other ports and regions in New Zealand, where most of it is made into stock feeds for poultry and pigs.
Te Maru in Maori means place of shelter.