Blogger: Central North Island Field Officer, Alan Fleming
We are now into our seventh day of cleaning up the mess that has resulted after the large oil spill off the coast of Tauranga.
The accident – which happened early Wednesday morning – has released a large amount of oil (estimated to be 300 tonnes) which has spread throughout the sea and now fist-sized globules are appearing on Mount Maunganui beach.
So far there are about 200 volunteers at the ready to clean up any birds that are washed ashore.
To date nine oiled birds have been rehabilitated (7 little blue penquins and 2 pied shags), however these are just the birds that have washed ashore.
It is estimated there are 10,000 grey faced petrels, thousands of diving petrels, white-faced storm-petrels and fluttering shearwaters are breeding on nearby islands including off Coromandel Peninsula and feeding in the Bay of Plenty.
A colony of several thousand gannets lies nearby on White Island and it is estimated there are around 200 -300 blue penguins living in the nearby vicinity to the ship.
At present, diving petrels are nursing small chicks and fluttering shearwaters are sitting on eggs.
If these birds become covered in oil, they may sink and drown leaving their chicks on the shore to die of starvation. If they live, they may have trouble flying or swimming – eventually they may die of exhaustion.
If these sea-birds ingest even a small amount of oil it can be fatal to them or their chicks when they feed them.
Finding these birds and attempting to rehabilitate them is important, but more importantly we need to prevent any further contamination.
The effect of this oil spill has the potential to be devastating to our wildlife – sub-lethal impacts to seabirds include organ dysfunction and compromised breeding success and pair bonding.
Since the incident, I have been based at the Oiled Wildlife Response Unit in Mount Maunganui.
My focus has been on communicating with our local and regional Forest and Bird members on how they can assist. In addition I have been sharing ideas with the Incident Command Centre and talking to media about the threats to our wildlife.
We have discussed deterring birds from entering the oil spill; preventing the spread of oil into the Tauranga harbour and other coastal estuaries; and looking at various boat-based operations to help in the recovery of oiled birds.
An absorbent boom has been deployed across the Maketu estuary but strong currents and surges may mean it cannot stop the oil entering the estuary.
Unfortunately, this is a terrible time for the spill to occur.
Shore birds such as NZ dotterels, oyster catchers and white fronted terns are starting to nest on sandy beaches just above the high tide mark. Spring tides, storm surges and low pressure systems could all combine to bring the oil higher up the beach and smother eggs and chicks.
Migratory birds such as the godwits and red knots are returning to New Zealand from the Northern Hemisphere and arriving in the Tauranga harbour and other estuaries along the Bay of Plenty coast.
Fur seals are currently moulting and hauling out on headlands, islands, islets and beaches throughout the Bay of Plenty region.
Other marine mammals (whales and dolphins) can give birth all year round but prefer to give birth in spring and the warmer months. In fact, a blue whale and calf were seen in the vicinity of Astrolabe reef just one week ago. The great whales are beginning to migrate from the tropics to Antarctic to feed on krill.
The effect on finfish, shellfish, crustaceans, filter feeders and the rest of the benthic community could be disastrous.
Without quick action, the oil will blanket our filter feeding sea-life which are not only important water filters but important in the diets of many animals – eventually the oil will bio-accumulate throughout the food web.
There’s no doubt about it – the effect of this oil spill is going to be widespread, and long-term.
Sadly, we treat our waters like a road – a corridor for commerce – and forgot the fact that this particular corridor is actually filled with an array of incredible animals.
Any boat carrying a toxic chemical and capable of severe ecological damage must be road-worthy – otherwise it’s our environment and our ever fragile wildlife that pays the price.
Please note: Currently the Oiled Wildlife Response Center is not seeking any more volunteers, however this may change so do please keep an ear to the ground (media and the internet) to see if this situation changes.