Thick, black oil has washed up on properties in Tauranga Harbour following a spill at the city's port yesterday, and a black shag has been covered in oil amid fears for surrounding wildlife.

The Bay of Plenty Regional Council this morning reported it was still unknown how much oil had escaped an oil line that leaked into the water as a ship was bunkering amid stormy weather yesterday.

The oil slick seen at Mr Neill's property in Mangatapu.
The oil slick seen at Mr Neill's property in Mangatapu.

This morning, Tauranga residents in suburbs as far down the harbour as Maungatapu woke to find grass reeds and plants smothered in oil.

A Bay of Plenty Times reporter at the Turret Rd causeway said "thick, black, gluggy mounds" of oil could be seen among vegetation at low tide at 8am today.

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"It's still quite smelly," she said.

The council said oil had covered about 300 metres of the beach about one metre wide north east of Turret Road.

Most was trapped in seagrass, which would be removed as soon as possible.

The affected beach was difficult to access by vehicle and the regional council would be using its oil spill trailers to clean up the oil.

Maungatapu resident Martin Neill said the oil spill was disgusting.

The oil slick seen at Mr Neill's property in Mangatapu.
The oil slick seen at Mr Neill's property in Mangatapu.

He wandered outside his home about 4.30pm when the rain had stopped and noticed the smell of oil in the air.

The oil had splashed on his lighthouse, across the boundary of his lawn and over the retaining wall separating his property from the high tide mark - about 1.5 metres high.
Mr Neill said he phoned the coastguard and authorities straight away.

"It's disgusting, there should have been a plan in place to stop it from getting this far. I thought they would have had some kind of spill control."

Mr Neill told the Bay of Plenty Times the oil was still lapping at his property's edge about 5.30pm last night.

"I've never seen anything like this before and this time of year all the migrating birds come in and do their feeding."

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Amanda Witherell, who lives with her partner on a boat in the Tauranga Marina, said she noticed the smell of oil in the air about 3.30pm.

"I could smell diesel.

"I was about to run some rubbish up to the tip here but as soon as I got off our boat I could see black diesel all over our dock lines and splashed up the side of our hull. It sort of collected around our boat in the dock.

"There is a lot of debris that comes through the marina, especially in a storm, like with bark, leaves and seaweed.

It's disgusting, there should have been a plan in place to stop it from getting this far.

"There is a raft of that stuff all covered with oil now."

Liza Schneider, founding trustee and veterinarian for ARRC Wildlife Trust, said it was more than likely other birds would be affected by the oil spill.

"Shags hang out in groups."

HAZARDOUS: A shag covered in oil found on a property in Moiri Place.
HAZARDOUS: A shag covered in oil found on a property in Moiri Place.

The biggest risk to the creatures would be if they were to start preening themselves after being covered in oil, she said.

The regional council's regional on-scene commander, Adrian Heays, confirmed the amount of oil spilled was still unknown, but all shorelines were being checked, including Pilot Bay and Matakana Island.

Spots of oil have been seen up and down the harbour and along the shoreline.

A helicopter survey this morning has shown no more oil in the water.

"It is important that people don't try to clean up the oil themselves," he said.

"This is heavy fuel oil, and is persistent in the environment. We will be cleaning up any oiled areas using the proper equipment, so please do not attempt to do this yourselves or touch the oil.

"Today we are gathering as much information as possible on where the oil has gone and ensuring we can clean up as much as possible. There are booms under the wharf to contain what is there."

There had been reports of soiled boats in the marina, and one oiled shag has been reported, which is being cared for by the Department of Conservation.

Mr Heays said Maritime New Zealand had been notified of the spillage and he expected to update them this morning.

For now, the matter was a Tier 2 response, meaning it was within the regional council's capabilities to manage.

However, if the oil spill reached further than Maungatapu, it could be escalated to a national response.

The incident comes after the vessel Sea Star Emperor spilled 20 litres of heavy fuel oil into the Port of Tauranga in August.

Most of the oil was collected around the bunkering connection, and only about one litre of oil went into the water.

A few months earlier, the German owners of the container ship Liloa have been fined $30,000 for spilling 1000 litres of heavy fuel oil into Tauranga Harbour.

The amount spilled over the weekend was understood to be incomparable to the amount spilled from the grounded MV Rena in 2011, when some of more than 350 tonnes of heavy fuel oil turned the Bay of Plenty's beaches black.