Helping hands with Rena

TALIA SHADWELL
Last updated 06:32 05/10/2012
Little blue penguin
MURRAY WILSON/Fairfax NZ
AT RISK: A tagged little blue penguin.

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Today marks a year since the Rena struck Astrolabe Reef, leaking oil on to Tauranga’s coastline and wildlife and sparking a Palmerston North team of wildlife experts into action.

The Rena struck the reef 14 kilometres off the coast of Tauranga on October 5, resulting in what is widely considered to be New Zealand’s worst maritime environmental disaster.

A Massey University-based Oiled Wildlife Response team were woken by a 4.30am alert that disaster was imminent. By 7am the Palmerston North team was mobilised and on its way to Tauranga.

The next day, the first oil-slicked birds were observed at sea.

By Friday, the Oiled Wildlife Response unit began taking in animal patients. On October 10, the Rena’s oil contents hit the Tauranga coastline and within a week, the unit’s team had taken 407 animals into their care.

They remained in Tauranga for almost three months, exhaustively cleaning, treating and performing autopsies on the animal victims of the stricken ship’s oil spill.

Kerri Morgan, a senior lecturer in avian and wildlife health, said it was the worst environmental maritime disaster anyone in the team had seen.

The team worked long hours in a co-ordinated rescue effort.

Yet it was a disaster they were prepared for, said associate professor of avian and wildlife health Brett Gartrell.

It pales in comparison to those like Exxon-Valdez but it’s big in New Zealand and on a world scale,’’ he said.

Oiled Wildlife Response technical adviser Helen McConnellntsTnte had been on call the night the message came in.

Ms McConnell said the response was what the team was trained for, but there was grim realisation when they had to put that training into practice.

‘‘In hindsight, we look back and we’re proud of our involvement, but you don’t really want to be back in it.’’
Wildlife pathologist Stuart Hunter had the sad task of conducting post-mortems on all the deceased animals.

Vet Janelle Ward and technician Pauline Conayne were also on hand to provide treatment and clean the oil-drenched wildlife.

In late December, 16 of their avian patients were transferred to the university.

The last oiled bird was picked up at the scene of the still splitting Rena in January.
By late February, the last of the oiled birds had been returned to their habitat on Motiti Island.

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Now able to take stock, the nationwide response teams calculated they had collected 2083 dead animals, including 17 fur seals and four whales that were autopsied.


Sixty threatened New Zealand dotterels were pre-emptively captured and held in captivity for two to three months as an insurance population.

Of the 383 little blue penguins in care, from 420 birds in total, all but 18 survived and 95 per cent were able to be released back into the wild.

The effort continues today. Post-release survival and breeding success is being monitored by Massey researchers in Tauranga, with reports optimistic at this stage.

Monitoring of the threatened population of dotterels, surviving only in New Zealand which supports less than 2000 of the birds, will continue for 12 months after their release back into the wild to ensure the species’ survival.

- Manawatu Standard

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