Almost nine years since the MV Rena container ship ran aground 12 nautical miles off Tauranga, plastic beads are washing ashore on Coromandel and Waihi beaches in the exact areas that were inundated with debris from lost cargo containers, according to locals.

A dozen volunteers armed with kitchen sieves and plastic bags returned to Tairua Beach on a stormy, wet day as the waves whipped ashore at Queen's Birthday Weekend.

Spilt cargo from New Zealand's worst environmental disaster was diverse in the months after the ship ran aground – plastic beads, paper, latex gloves, packets of milk powder, timber and more.

The Bay of Plenty Regional Council gave The Astrolabe Community Trust consent to "dump" the remains of the MV Rena, its equipment and cargo on Astrolabe Reef in February 2016 subject to an extensive suite of conditions outlined within the 451-page decision document.


A spokesperson on behalf of the trust, Hugh Shanahan, said there were no more beads within or coming from the wreck.

During the Environment Court hearing, it was confirmed by technical expert witnesses that a significant clean-up operation - led by US and New Zealand salvage teams - removed all remaining cargo containing beads.

Shanahan said during the clean-up operation there was a storm and some beads were lost.

But today it would be difficult to identify with any confidence whether these beads are those that were lost, or from another source, he said.

"This type of bead is widely used in industrial mould injection processes and they have been found on beaches in Wellington and Auckland.

"Given how extensively this type of bead is now used I'm cautious about attributing all sightings back to Rena, but, for sure, that some were lost to the environment during the clean-up and may resurface after significant coastal storm events is probably fair," he said.

In the initial days that this debris began washing ashore on the Coromandel, locals recall that some came quickly and helped themselves to the wheelbarrows on the sand.

Others stayed for hours and days, returning to pick up packets of noodles and scooping up millions of plastic beads that arrived in such large volumes that they could be heard swooshing in the surf.


Resident Hamish McNabb, of Tairua, innovated with items like whitebait nets to scoop the small plastic beads from the Te Karo Bay stream north of Tairua.

Tairua locals spend a very wet Queen's Birthday Weekend afternoon collecting plastic beads that washed up all along the beach. Photo / Amber Jones
Tairua locals spend a very wet Queen's Birthday Weekend afternoon collecting plastic beads that washed up all along the beach. Photo / Amber Jones

Large sacks were filled for days before help arrived for the local volunteers.

Maritime New Zealand reported at the end of February 2012 that clean-up company Braemar Howells had processed some 4500 tonnes of waste. About 3800 tonnes went to landfills, and the remainder was recycled.

But at Waihi Beach and Tairua where cargo pollution washed ashore for months, volunteers are still seeing items they believe originate from the Rena sinking wash ashore.

On Motiti Island, residents report oil leaks still happening, especially following heavy weather.

Kai moana from the northern part of the island like paua is – according to some – inedible.

"This was exactly why Ngai Te Hapu fought so hard to have the wreck removed and it still causes stress and pain to our people," says Buddy Makaere, spokesman for Ngai Te Hapu of Motiti Island, which appealed a decision to abandon the Rena on Astrolabe Reef.

He says ever since the Rena episode flotsam continues to wash up on the Motiti beaches.

"And I think if you looked hard enough you would still find plastic debris from the wreck at points along the Mt Maunganui/Papamoa beaches and northwards to the Coromandel."

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When shown images from the recent volunteer-initiated beach clean-up in Tairua, Mikaere said it was disappointing.

"We only get the residue on the beach but just imagine how much is still going into the marine environment and getting into the food chain via birds and fish."

The Astrolabe Trust's website released the Physical Environment Monitoring Report 2019
by Dr Phillip Ross at the end of January.

In the executive summary, it said the ecology of Otāiti is continuing to recover from the sinking of the Rena.

Reef fish and benthic communities observed at Otāiti are comparable in composition and species abundance to nearby reefs. However, the benthic ecology survey identified large areas of urchin barrens on the southeast ridge and western slope of Otāiti last year.

It's unclear why.

These may have increased as a result of the resumption of fishing on Otāiti in 2016, a large urchin recruitment event, or insufficient densities of urchin predators (snapper and crayfish) to control urchin populations, the author summarised.

Further up the coast on one of the Coromandel's worst-hit beaches, Te Karo Bay/Sailors Grave, resident Ben Grubb reflected on the initial days when debris first washed ashore.

"I was amazed. It was just a disaster. The stuff was everywhere."

Examples of plastic beads washing up ashore. Photo / Amber Jones
Examples of plastic beads washing up ashore. Photo / Amber Jones

He sees a small amount still arriving after storms, including plastic beads and a noodle packet the other day. "I think it will always happen because there's always going to be those beads stuck in the rocks."

But, overall, he says, the clean-up was a success.

"When the clean-up company arrived, they spent ages. They also picked up boatie debris that was there for years. I think that's done a huge amount to improve the beach and the whole coastline."