Victoria Travers: What we can learn from Rena

A little blue penguin is washed thoroughly at the beginning of a process that will see it cleaned and fully rehabilitated at the oil spill from the Rena. Photo / Alan Gibson
A little blue penguin is washed thoroughly at the beginning of a process that will see it cleaned and fully rehabilitated at the oil spill from the Rena. Photo / Alan Gibson

Last month I spent a few days alongside others from around New Zealand helping with the Rena clean-up.

As one of 140 or so people working on oiled wildlife recovery, my role was to scour beaches looking for sea birds and other wildlife that had been affected by spilled oil.

I felt privileged to be able to play a small part in New Zealand's response to this disaster - but I also felt heartbroken. I had seen the pictures of oil washing up on beaches, but nothing could have prepared me for the reality.

I had to dodge 'cowpats' of oil as I walked up the beach, looking for oiled birds, dead and alive. The smell from the oil was palpable, particularly on Papamoa Beach.

On my first day of searching, our team came across only two live birds. Both were little blue penguins, with much of their bodies covered in oil.

They were the lucky ones - the team I was working with caught them, and they were transferred to the Oiled Wildlife Response Centre where they were cleaned and cared for.

I lost count of how many dead birds I saw.

The first I encountered was in a two-inch deep puddle of oil. The oil was as thick and sticky as toffee. All I could see was a beak - I couldn't even tell what species it was. This bird had probably been feeding or sitting on the water further offshore when it got caught up in this slick; it had probably been dead for days.

The official count is that 1400 sea birds have died, but that is just the number found on shore; the true cost is likely to be many more.

The environment tainted by the Rena spill is precious, as is so much of New Zealand's marine environment. Nationally vulnerable species are found there, including birds such as the New Zealand dotterel and the white heron, along with New Zealand fur seals, and various species of dolphin and whale.

These species will be affected not only by the direct impacts of the sludgy oil, but by the disruption of the breeding season and longer term effects on the ecosystem as that oil breaks down and releases toxins into the food chain. The full impact of this disaster may not be known for years.

Just as my heart went out to the wildlife affected by the spilled oil, it also goes out to the people of the Bay of Plenty. Many businesses have been affected. Many jobs are at stake. Those who rely on kai moana have been hit hard by the oil spill already and face great uncertainty. For all of those people, there is no economy without a safe, healthy environment. This is not to mention the recreational fishers, surfers, swimmers whose lives have been disrupted by this disaster.

It is too late now to undo the harm the Rena has caused. But it is not too late to learn from this disaster. And the biggest lesson we need to learn is that there is no cure for oil once it has spilled - the only rational approach is prevention.

As a starting point, the government could identify the most vulnerable marine areas and prevent ships from sailing near them. Currently, only the Three Kings and Poor Knights Islands are protected in this way.

It could protect more of our marine environment in no-take reserves - the ocean equivalent of national parks. New Zealand's marine environment is one of the planet's most precious areas of biodiversity, yet currently less than 1 per cent is protected in reserves. Research shows us that no-take marine reserves are the best way to ensure biodiversity is protected, our best chance that the ocean might offer us a sustainable future.

It could shelve plans to open up more of New Zealand's oceans for deep sea oil and gas drilling, at least until we can be sure that appropriate measures are in place to protect the vulnerable ocean environment.

And it could strengthen its proposed legal protections for New Zealand's offshore environment. The government's draft legislation covering New Zealand's Exclusive Economic Zone (outside the 12-mile territorial limit) has relatively poor environmental protection provisions. It seems to be designed to smooth the way for more deep sea oil and gas exploration, rather than to protect the marine environment.

The Rena disaster occurred in relatively calm coastal waters, close to one of the country's biggest ports - and yet New Zealand authorities, supported by international experts, have struggled to contain the damage.

How much worse would it be if this was a major spill, and it occurred further offshore, in deep water and rough seas? What chance would we have of coping with a spill that spewed thousands of tonnes of oil every day into vulnerable environments, as last year's Gulf of Mexico spill did?

The Rena should be a wake-up call to us all. It is New Zealand's biggest maritime environmental disaster. Please, for the sake of our wildlife and our livelihoods, let it stay that way.

* Victoria Travers is WWF New Zealand's marine conservation advocate.

- NZ Herald

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