Astrolabe Reef disaster far reaching

GRANT DIXON
Last updated 12:52 28/10/2011

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‘This disaster is going to take some time to recover from’ was the general consensus by those in the recreational fishing industry directly affected by the Bay of Plenty oil spill.

Container ship Rena struck Astrolabe Reef, just outside Motiti Island, early in October in relatively calm conditions. There are plenty of theories flying round as to how the ship came to be grounded, including the fact it was the captain’s birthday that day and that the ship was trying to make up time to get to the pilot station ahead of another vessel. Regardless of the cause (which will no doubt be at the centre of an intense investigation over the coming weeks), the facts remain the listing vessel has leaked a considerable amount of oil into the water, as well as lost a number of containers overboard while being pounded by three to four-metre swells, and increasingly looks like breaking up.

At the time of writing this, oil had coated much of the coastline in the vicinity and Maritime NZ had issued an advisory warning concerning the potential floating container danger to shipping. Vessels ignoring the notice not only ran the risk of hitting the containers, but voiding their insurance.

The cleanup operation had begun in earnest, with the army involved in clearing the beaches of oil after every high tide. Residents along the coast from Papamoa to Mount Maunganui reported being sickened by the smell of oil up to a kilometre inland. Seabirds have been washed up covered in oil, most of them dead, and we can only imagine the overall effects on the ecology long term.

The Astrolabe Reef itself was such a unique place: black, blue and striped marlin were caught there, and whale sharks, whales and dolphins have been regular visitors.

“We can only guess what the future holds,” says Roly Bagshaw of Top Catch Bait & Tackle in Tauranga.

“We are in the situation where there are so many unknowns, so many unanswered questions.”

He says most anglers have an empathy with the ecology and most are frightened of the long-term ramifications.

“There is not much we can do but wait and see.”

He anticipates the oil spill will have a direct impact on his business in the short term.

“If so much of the coastline is covered in muck and there is the danger posed by the drifting containers, who will want to go fishing locally?”

Keen local angler Neil McDonald reiterated Roly’s thoughts. “We had planned to head north to the Mercury Islands for the long weekend, but the boat won’t be leaving the marina.”

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His and partner Sheryl Kramer’s Riviera Black Shadow was due to have the hull anti-fouled.

“Now might be a good time to have it out of the water and on the hard,” Neil observed wryly.

“Containers are a notorious hazard, as they often float just under the water, where they are difficult to detect.

I won’t be out there, even during daylight, let alone travel at night as we often have done.”

Another retailer, Bruce Weston of The Big Fish Bait and Tackle Company at Mount Maunganui, says it will not just be the marine industry that’s affected, but other businesses that rely on visitors as well.

“At this stage it is probably safe to say that most, if not all, beach activity for this summer is not going to happen,” Bruce suggests.

“The commercial fishing industry will be affected. Trawling with oil on the surface and containers on the bottom will be unsafe and impossible.”

Blue Ocean Charters Hugh and Raewyn Ensor have relocated two of their boats further up the coast, and in the foreseeable future will be operating out of Whangamata.

“We have over 500 anglers booked on our trips, and it doesn’t look as though we will be able to operate out of Tauranga, so have moved north,” Raewyn says.

“People still want to fish, but have concerns as to whether we are still going and how safe the fish will be to eat.

“We are among the lucky Bay of Plenty businesses; we can simply drop the ropes and relocate, most can’t.”

She says many in the tourism business had been hit hard by the recession, and the effects of the ship’s grounding will be the final straw.

“We have already seen closures, and I expect there will be a few more.”

Charter skipper Ben Pokaia of Tauranga-based Nomad Charters is a relative newcomer to the industry and for him the accident could not have come at a worse time as he attempts to establish a client base.

In the short term he has been involved in the clean-up, contracted to the Port of Tauranga, but like the others he has concerns for his and the environment’s long-term prospects. Ben, however, is a little more optimistic than most.

“While for us the situation is pretty bad, in the context of some of the overseas disasters involving oil spills it is nowhere as serious,” Ben suggests.

Also, because his operation is based around a trailerboat, he can still travel to other destinations to avoid the mess. He is hoping the oil will miss the likes of White Island and Waihau Bay.

When NZFN spoke with Ben on October 13, he was sitting at the wharf taking a break from the operations, watching four ‘skimmer boats’ attempting to clean up oil that had come into the harbour.

“They were fighting a losing battle,” he observed.
Like others, he was waiting to see what the next step would be, his local fishing future out of his hands.

- Fishing News

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