Lessons of the Rena disaster will be passed on to the world with a new training programme on how to deal with wildlife hit by an oil spill.

At an oil spill conference held in Perth this week, Massey University and the University of California launched their jointly-developed Oiled Wildlife Response Training programme.

It covers all aspects of how to respond to threats to wildlife in the event of an oil spill, including planning, cleaning, rehabilitation and developing special facilities.

An online component includes interactive activities such as gaming, animation and quizzes.


Much of the programme was informed by Massey University's leading role in the quick wildlife response to the grounding of the containership Rena off the coast of Tauranga in 2011.

The Rena leaked more than 300 tonnes of heavy fuel oil into the ocean and immediately created an oil slick spanning five kilometres, in what remains the country's worst maritime environment disaster.

The Massey team was mobilised within hours of the ship hitting Astrolabe Reef.

A total of 383 live oiled little blue penguins were collected and admitted for care following the disaster and of these, 95 per cent were successfully rehabilitated and released back to the wild.

By comparison, when the bulk carrier MS Olivia ran aground in the Tristin de Cunha islands in the Atlantic Ocean in the same year, the ship leaked 1650 tonnes of heavy crude oil into the ocean.

Due to the remote location of the islands, and the lack of existing oil spill response infrastructure, it took approximately 10 days for the response team to arrive at the islands.

As a consequence of the delay, of the 3717 oiled rockhopper penguins rescued, just 381 were successfully released back to the wild -- a 10 per cent survival rate.

"Almost 40 per cent of countries in the world have no oiled response plans in place and, at the same time, global oil consumption has reached more than five billion tons a year," said Dr Louise Chilvers a senior lecturer at Massey's Wildbase Oil Response.

"The practices undertaken to collect and transport oil to satisfy this demand has decreased the risk of accidental oil spills, however, consequences and the amount of oil spilt during an event has increased."

Dr Kerri Morgan, who directs the unit, felt the response to the Rena disaster was generally successful because an oil spill response plan -- which included a pre-identified base area and pre-training responders -- had already been put in place.

"Overall, it worked pretty well ... and a major part of that was the speed of the response," she told the Herald.

The first training course will be offered in July, with additional courses rolled out over the following 12 months.

Scientists reflect on Rena

Meanwhile, scientists have looked back on the Rena disaster and shared their lessons in a series of new papers published today in the New Zealand Journal of Marine and Freshwater Research.

A summary written by Dr Philip Ross and Professor Chris Battershill of Waikato University, and Professor David Schiel of Canterbury University, said the environmental legacy of the disaster would not be what oil was spilled, as had been first feared, but its cargo.

Three years after the grounding, there was little evidence of Rena-derived oil on the Bay of Plenty coastline -- and the main evidence that the grounding ever occurred was the occasional appearance of plastic beads.

These seemingly innocuous items from the ship's cargo had turned out to be one of the more widespread and persistent reminders of the incident, they said.

On Astrolabe Reef, although the level of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) was still present above ambient concentrations, the causes of long-term environmental effects would be components of the ship and its cargo that did not register as a concern until many months after the ship sank.

For cargo ships, the authors said, the range of potential pollutants was large and included commercial and industrial chemicals and materials, raw minerals, oils, paints, manufactured goods, agricultural and horticultural produce, and personal belongings.

Metals were present in almost every component of a ship's structure and many of these prospective contaminants had the potential to persist in the environment for much longer than oil.

The two Rena-derived contaminants thought most likely to cause long-lasting effects on Astrolabe Reef were copper and TBT.

However, no adverse ecological effects from TBT had been recorded, while if the remaining copper stayed where it was at the wreck site, any ecological effects were likely to be localised.

The authors said that, based on scientific findings, the concerns of the public around "a major environmental disaster" could be largely put to rest. "However, it appears to be somewhat fortuitous that the legacy of the Rena is fairly localised contamination at the site of the grounding with little if any lasting impact on coastal ecosystems."

The Rena disaster had also proven a valuable lesson for scientists in dealing with such a large event, they said.

"There is little doubt that New Zealand's state of preparedness for maritime disasters is enhanced after the scientific work done in response to the Rena event."