By Oliver Milman
Oil spill off the east coast of New Zealand threatens local penguins, whales, seals and seabirds.
Conservationists have warned of an impending wildlife “tragedy” caused by an oil spill off the east coast of New Zealand, with populations of penguins, whales, seals and seabirds set to be hardest hit.
A severe weather warning for the Bay of Plenty area on Monday/yesterday has heightened fears that the stricken cargo vessel Rena, which is carrying 1,700 tonnes of fuel oil and 200 tonnes of diesel, will start to break up, with grim consequences for the local marine wildlife.
The fallout from the incident, which saw Rena run aground on a reef last Wednesday, is already being felt, with seven little blue penguins and two cormorants recovered and treated today at a centre in Tauranga.
However, this number is expected to rise to more than 200 in the coming days, with warnings that an escalation of the situation would have dire consequences for several species.
WWF New Zealand said it hoped the incident would not prove a “tragedy” for the region’s marine wildlife, which includes bottlenose dolphins, orcas and beaked whales. Large baleen whales also migrate through the affected area.
Of particular concern is the New Zealand dotterel, an endangered shorebird.
“There’s only 1,200 dotterels left due to coastal developments, so the last thing they need is their feeding ground contaminated,”
said Bob Zuur, marine advocate at WWF New Zealand.
“Little blue penguins are also very vulnerable as they swim through the oil. Fairy terns frequent the estuary and many northern hemisphere birds, such as godwits, that have migrated south for spring, are also under threat.”
“New Zealand is known as the seabird capital of the world. We have about 85 different seabirds that breed here. It’s breeding season now, so there are many birds, such as petrels, that are diving into the water to find food for their chicks.
“The oil makes it difficult for them to fly and there’s a real risk they will ingest the oil when they preen, or pass it into their chicks.
“Should the vessel break up, we risk an international-scale incident. It’s a huge amount of oil. I sincerely hope the it doesn’t break up as the storm bears down on it.”
It’s estimated that up to 50 tonnes of oil has already been jettisoned into the sea. Radio New Zealand has reported that four of the 1,300 containers aboard Rena carry ferro-silicon, a hazardous substance which is flammable if it comes into contact with water.
More than 300 Defence Force personnel have been deployed to tackle the spill, along with specialists from Australia, the UK and the Netherlands.
The exclusion zone around the Rena has been extended to 2.8 km today, with teams set to resume pumping oil off the damaged vessel. So far, just 10 tonnes of oil has been removed.
Humans, as well as marine wildlife, are also in danger from the spill, according to Maritime New Zealand.
The government agency has urged people not to touch the oil, which has started to wash up on the tourist-friendly Mount Maunganui beach, despite the efforts of volunteers to begin the clean-up operation.
Source: The Guardian
Beach closed to looters as Rena cargo washes ashore
AAP via Sydney Morning Herald
Jan 9, 2012 – Waihi beach in New Zealand has been closed after reports of thefts of cargo which has washed ashore from the stricken Rena container ship, which broke in two at the weekend.
The ship, which grounded on Astrolabe Reef off Tauranga in October, separated into two pieces at the weekend, spilling an estimaged 300 containers into the sea.
This morning containers from the Rena started washing up at Waihi beach to the north-west of the grounding.
People at the beach have so far reported seeing five shipping containers on the beach, which has seen a huge number of sacks of milk powder spilled on to the shore.
Waikato police spokesman Andrew McAlley said police, who were working in conjunction with Maritime New Zealand (MNZ), closed the beach as of 9.15am after reports theft from the containers.
“It has become a police matter because people have been trying to steal things from the containers. There is also a risk to the public in regards to contamination, so we’re trying to keep people away from them.”
Mr McAlley reminded people that the property in the containers remained that of its owners and their respective insurance companies.
Rena now ‘very, very dangerous’
Salvors say they have a range of options for continuing work on the Rena if one or both sections of the grounded container ship sinks.
Svitzer Salvage spokesperson Matthew Watson said the work of removing containers from the remains of the Rena had become
“very, very dangerous and very difficult”.
If the rear section sunk, salvaging containers from the ship would become a far more complicated operation, he told Radio New Zealand.
The biggest concern was for the rear section of the ship which was “wriggling” around in the swell.
If the rear section did sink, or if the front section sunk as well, it was possible salvors could possibly use diving techniques and technology.
“Or they could possibly drag the pieces away to shallower waters. There are all sorts of options and scenarios. We don’t know which way it’s going to go at the moment,” Watson said.
Salvors would continue to make their best efforts to move containers off the Rena when the weather calmed down, but they would not take any silly risks.
Containers moving around ‘like little toys’
Grant Dyson, spokesman for container recovery company Braemar Howells, said five containers had been found at Waihi beach. The plan was to use a helicopter to lift the containers on to a barge offshore and then deal with them through the usual process.
Stuart Walker, who is on holiday at Waihi beach, said a yellow unopened container had wedged up on the north end of the beach, and a couple of other containers could be seen bobbing around in the water.
Scattered along the section of beach were clear plastic bags of a yellowy powder, possibly milk powder.
A pack of timber, about three metres long by 1.5 metres wide and one metre high, was also on the beach and some others were visible in the water.
“The waves are moving them around like they’re little toys,” Mr Walker said.
Reports were also coming in of insulation foam and debris washing ashore between Mt Maunganui and Harrisons Cut at Papamoa.
There was some suggestion the foam might be from refrigerated containers that may have previously fallen into the sea and been stirred up by recent large seas, Mr Dyson said.
Overnight the Braemar recovery team had flown over the area and managed to drop buoys on to more floating containers, taking the number of containers with buoys attached to 45.
Braemar Howells has estimated that between 200 and 300 containers of about 830 remaining on the Rena were lost overboard when the two sections of the ship separated. Most were expected to sink, leaving 40 to 50 floating.
The Braemar team would be out in force today hunting down containers, Mr Dyson said.
It had a small fleet at its disposal including fast response craft, a barge with a crane and tugs. There were three boats with sonar scanning equipment and helicopters and fixed wing aircraft on standby.
The strategy was to rope in as many floating containers as possible and hitch them to anchor points at sea.
Extreme caution urged
The Port of Tauranga has warned ships in the area to use
“extreme caution and maintain a vigilant lookout”.
Anchorages off the port were likely to be affected by floating containers and debris, and it was recommended they not be used until further notice, the port said.
It had redeployed monitoring of the port channels, utilising side-scanning sonar and magnetometer sweeping.
MNZ said there had been no significant changes to the status of the Rena overnight.
Salvage and spill response experts were making observation flights this morning to find out more about the ship’s condition, including container debris and any oil lost from the ship. Contractors would respond to any reports of debris or oil that had come ashore.
National on scene commander Alex van Wijngaarden said a response team had been mobilised to deal with any fresh oil released from the ship, and members of the oiled wildlife response team spent the night checking Mt Maunganui and Leisure Island for oiled birds.
Mr Van Wijngaarden said the navy would help patrol the exclusion zone around Rena and ensure harbour channels remained clear.
Any oil coming ashore in the coming days was expected to be much less than the amount that washed up after the Rena first went aground, he said.
“Anyone finding oil or debris is asked to report it immediately and to stay well clear, as all debris must be treated as if it is contaminated.”
Regional on scene commander Adam Munro said extensive planning had been undertaken to prepare for oil or shipping containers washing up in the area.
“We have trained staff ready to respond if required and detailed plans are in place which we have prepared with the assistance of Maritime NZ, the salvors and the container recovery company. Conditions are extremely changeable, but there is a possibility that debris and oil from the vessel might impact the eastern seaboard of the Coromandel Peninsula, north of Waihi.”
MNZ salvage unit manager Dave Billington said reports started coming through about 8pm (6pm AEDT) on Saturday about containers being lost overboard. A flyover yesterday morning found that the ship’s stern was listing at 23 degrees to starboard while the bow section remained firmly wedged on the reef. The ship was in two pieces that were about 20-30 metres apart.
Source: Sydney Morning Herald
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