Isaac Davison is a NZ Herald political reporter.

Rena's wildlife victims die in oil-soaked misery

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An oil-sodden bird dead on the beach at Mt Maunganui. Photo / Joel Ford
An oil-sodden bird dead on the beach at Mt Maunganui. Photo / Joel Ford

A large wandering albatross is among the latest victims in the soaring wildlife death toll caused by oil pollution from the stricken Rena off Tauranga's coast.

Rescuers are now moving larger animals from the area to prevent them being poisoned by the oil.

Cold weather has worsened the effects of the oil on seabirds. Many penguins, petrels and shearwaters have frozen to death because the oil blocked their ability to insulate themselves against cold.

There are also fears for bigger mammals. Globules of oil could be sucked up by passing rare blue whales and fur seals as well, said Forest and Bird North Island field officer Al Flemming.

"At this time of the year, we also have the migratory whales passing through the Bay of Plenty on their way from the tropics to Antarctica to feed on the krill. One week ago, a blue whale and calves were spotted close to the Astrolabe Reef."

A wildlife centre has been set up at Mt Maunganui to cope with oil-coated animals.

But more than 200 seabirds, mostly diving petrels and pied shags, have died from hypothermia or from poisoning after swallowing oil.

The wildlife centre's director, Brett Gartrell from Massey University, said: "The effect of the oil is like removing the birds' down jackets and leaving them walking around in knickers. They freeze to death."

Dr Gartrell expected many more dead and sick animals to be found, especially if the Rena breaks up.

The dead albatross brought to the centre yesterday could barely be identified because it was so coated in oil.

In a series of tents, workers yesterday brushed and bathed penguins, removing the oil coating them. One problem the helpers are facing is that once the birds have been cleaned, there is no safe habitation to which they can be returned.

The Greek shipping company Costamare, which owns the Rena, has approved the care and housing of at least 500 birds.

Dr Gartrell said Costamare had not yet indicated a limit to its funding.

Te Papa curator Colin Miskelly is working at the centre to identify the birds. His greatest concern is that rare species such as black petrels or fairy terns could be affected by the pollution.

"On a New Zealand scale, this is a major mortality event, caused by humans. The more-threatened species have not turned up yet, but these are all magnificent species in their own right."

He had observed high mortality rates among Buller's shearwaters. He said they were not a threatened species, but they bred only at the Poor Knights Islands. "So there is likely to be hole in the local population ..."

Dr Gartrell said one of the main priorities was shifting the local population of the threatened dotterel.

Two fur seal pups were also at the site. Neither had been coated in oil, but they were removed from beaches as a precaution.

"There's oil everywhere now," said Dr Gartrell, "so we can't rely on them not to get caught in it."

- NZ Herald

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