Inquiry needed, but we've less to fear than we think.

When the Rena hit the Astrolabe Reef off Tauranga a year ago today, New Zealand was absorbed in the Rugby World Cup. It took a day or so to register that the fully laden container ship listing in the water could become an environmental disaster. Once that possibility was realised, it appeared our maritime emergency services were wasting valuable time. More days passed, sunny days with calm seas, while fuel leaked from the vessel. Where were the booms and other imagined antidotes to an oil slick?

Well, not everyone panicked. Those of us who were critical of Maritime New Zealand and the Government at the time ought to acknowledge we were wrong.

Expert salvors were summoned in good time. Though the weather had turned, they got most of the oil off the ship and Maritime NZ, with 200 trained people and thousands of volunteers, was able to deal with the initial leak that came ashore. Bay of Plenty beaches were not ruined for the summer. Mt Maunganui's was reopened within a fortnight.

None of this is to suggest there is no need for the inquiry the Government announced yesterday, but it needs to be kept in perspective. If the Rena was "New Zealand's worst maritime environmental disaster", as environmentalists still assure us it was, we have less to fear than we might have imagined.


We do, after all, lie in the southern ocean, more exposed than any country to its winds, storms and wild seas.

It is remarkable there have not been more shipwrecks on our coasts over the years. Considering our position and our reliance on trade, we should have the world's best marine rescue and coastal protection precautions.

But the rarity of accidents probably does not warrant the cost of keeping all possible needs on hand.

The Rena experience suggests we can rely on salvors from as far away as Holland.

The inquiry might need to concentrate more on the causes of the grounding and the adequacy of our shipping regulations and marine insurance.

The salvage and clean-up has cost the country about $47 million, of which $27.6 million will be recovered from the ship's owners. That will rise to $38 million if the company gets resource consent to leave the submerged section of the wreck on the reef. Surely there will be no objection to it remaining as a diving attraction with all the containers removed.

The compensation negotiated with the Daina Shipping Company is more than the $12 million a ship owner is liable to pay under the Maritime Transport Act, and more than the $24 million liability they would have faced had New Zealand signed an International Maritime Organisation convention that came into force in 2008.

The lack of interest shown by successive New Zealand governments since that insurance level was proposed in 1996 is a measure of how relaxed the country has been about ship accidents.


The subject has more urgency now because deep ocean oil drilling is becoming more economic and the Government wants to discover the wealth that might lie under the seabed of New Zealand's exclusive economic zone.

The Rena inquiry should range widely. Local Maori concern at the consequences of a drilling accident has already interrupted one exploratory project off the East Coast.

If the Rena was an environmental disaster, the response and the rapid clean-up suggests the country could cope with worse. Our coastal defences were up to the task.