Oct 10

Oil from a ship stranded on the Astrolabe Reef off the coast of New Zealand has begun washing ashore, according to the latest news reports.

Photo of little penguin standing on rocks

The little penguin is one of the species that has been badly affected by the spill

The container ship, the Rena, ran aground on the reef in the Bay of Plenty on Wednesday. Oil continues to leak from the stricken ship despite the efforts of teams working to stabilise the vessel, and fist-sized clumps of oil have now been found on Mount Maunganui beach on the North Island.

So far, up to 30 tonnes of oil or fuel are believed to have leaked into the sea in the Bay of Plenty, which is one of New Zealand’s top tourist destinations.

Round the clock

Crews are working round the clock to pump oil off the vessel, although bad weather has been delaying progress. A tanker is moored alongside the vessel to offload the oil, but work was halted on Sunday after only 10 tonnes had been removed because of high winds.

Officials fear that if the ship breaks up in bad weather 1,700 tonnes of fuel could be spilled.

The bad weather is expected continue, with poor conditions forecast for later in the week. Maritime New Zealand (MNZ) said in a statement, “The weather is expected to deteriorate in the coming days, so we are working around the clock to remove the oil. The top priority is to first remove the oil, then lighten the vessel by removing the containers, and finally, move the ship off the reef.”

MNZ said that more oil was expected onshore in the coming days.

Clean-up operation on stand-by

Around 200 people are involved in the operation intended to salvage the ship, while hundreds of New Zealand military personnel are on stand-by to clean up affected beaches.

“We are expecting oil to wash up on the shoreline south of Mount Maunganui but we don’t know how much,” MNZ said.

Photo of orca breaching

Orcas, as well as other whales and dolphins, may be affected by the spill

Wildlife fears

The oil leaking from the stranded Rena has created a 5km slick, which is expected to spread further as the situation worsens. MNZ has established a maritime exclusion zone around the ship and warns that the fuel oil is toxic.

The impact of oil on marine wildlife, such as seabirds, whales and dolphins, can be devastating.

The New Zealand Department of Conservation are anticipating that the slick may have a severe impact on the country’s marine wildlife and have established two wildlife rescue centres in response to the spill. Several teams have been dispatched to search the beaches and islands in the area for animals and birds already affected by the oil.

Several oiled-covered birds, including little penguins and shags, have so far been recovered. The birds have been taken to a wildlife facility in Te Maunga.

From tip to toe, they are covered in black sticky gunk, matting up all their feathers right down to the skin,” said Brett Gartrell of New Zealand’s Wildlife Health Centre. “They have ingested it and started to get anaemic, which is part of the toxic effect of the oil.”

Oil stops the feathers of birds from being waterproof and, more importantly, affects the ability of the birds to swim. The oil is also extremely toxic if ingested, affecting the internal organs and often leading to death.

Photo of pair of bottlenose dolphins breaching

Bottlenose dolphins are one of several marine species that could be affected in the Bay of Plenty

‘Deep concern’

There have also been warnings from the environmental organisation Greenpeace that whales and dolphins calving in the area could also be affected, as well as many other species. The animal welfare group Forest and Bird said the timing of the accident, in the middle of the breeding season for birds, was “disastrous”.

WWF-New Zealand is also deeply concerned for marine wildlife threatened by the spreading oil spill from the container ship.

Rebecca Bird, WWF-New Zealand’s Marine Programme Manager said, “We are concerned for wildlife at risk from the spill, particularly seabirds such as shearwaters and petrels.  Preventing the vessel from breaking up and disgorging its fuel and cargo is clearly the priority, as a spill of that scale would be a disaster for wildlife, and for the people of Tauranga.”

This marine region is home to common and bottlenose dolphins, orcas and beaked whales, as well as several different species of tern and a concentration of gannets. Large baleen whales also migrate through this area.

Read more about the oil spill on the BBC news.

Read the WWF New Zealand Press Release.

Explore the species found in New Zealand on ARKive.

Helen Roddis, ARKive Species Text Author

  • Doug Norris (October 11th, 2011 at 2:57 am):

    I agree with Forest and Bird that the timing of this oil spill could not have been worse. This time of year is filled with activity – nest building and birds attracting mates in their breeding plumage. Many species feed close to the shore and breed on the beaches. Also, shore birds that overwinter in the region from as far afield as the Arctic have arrived in large numbers.

    Also, given that so many indigenous species are struggling for survival in New Zealand this has got to be one of the worst locations for this disaster.

    And that’s just the bird populations. Spare a thought for the rest of the fauna and flora!