New Zealand is bracing itself for an environmental disaster as a container ship - stranded off the north island - threatens to break up in the Bay of Plenty. A large oil slick has already killed a number of seabirds.
Oil and fuel from the ship threaten local flora and fauna
New Zealand's environment minister Nick Smith says his country is preparing for what could become its “most significant maritime pollution disaster in decades.”
A 47,000 ton container ship called "Rena" hit a reef off Tauranga on New Zealand's north island earlier this week and created an oil slick more than five kilometers (three miles) long.
Response teams are searching for injured wildlife
The oil slick has already killed a number of birds, but four oil-covered blue penguins were rescued and taken to a wildlife center to be cleaned.
Maritime New Zealand (MNZ) - a government body charged with protecting the local maritime environment - says the heavy fuel oil leaking from the "Rena" is also toxic to humans.
And there is now growing concern that the Liberian-flagged vessel could break up, dispersing more oil into the otherwise pristine Bay of Plenty - a popular tourist destination.
Efforts to stop the spread of oil with dispersants have failed so far
An MNZ official told local media the oil slick could reach the New Zealand coast over the weekend.
MNZ has tried to disperse the oil by spraying agents from aircraft, but has so far failed.
The weather in the Bay of Plenty is forecast to get worse by the start of next week and MNZ fears that could force the ship to break up in heavy swells, leading to a "significant shoreline impact."
New Zealand's transport ministry is also concerned the ship - whose 23 crew members have remained onboard - could break up and sink.
Transport minister Steven Joyce told local reporters the situation was going to "get worse before it gets better - there's no getting around that," he said.
The 'Rena' is stranded on an angle and could break up
If the "Rena" does break up on the Astrolabe Reef, it could send a total of 1,700 tons of heavy fuel oil into the environment, threatening many forms of marine life.
The Bay of Plenty is home to whales, dolphins, seals, penguins, shearwaters, gannets and petrels.
Animal welfare group Forest and Bird said the oil would stick to the hull of any boat that passes through it, and that could lead to contamination in other areas.
The group's Karen Baird told New Zealand broadcaster 3News the timing of the accident was in the middle of the breeding season for birds and was "disastrous" as a result.
It is not yet known why the "Rena" hit the reef.
Author: Zulfikar Abbany (AFP, Reuters)
Editor: Stuart Tiffen