Research confirms Rena disaster was mostly harmless

Research into the long-term effects of the Rena wreck has found some of the biggest ongoing risks are attributable to unexpected sources – including the clean-up effort itself.

Nearly five years after the container ship ran aground off Tauranga, a series of papers published in the New Zealand Journal of Marine and Freshwater Research looks at the lessons learned.

A lead researcher, Waikato University marine ecologist Phil Ross, said the biggest threat was initially thought to be the oil, which coated rocks, beaches and birds.

However, thanks to a massive effort by thousands of people – heralded as the first-ever effective volunteer response following an oil spill – this risk was quickly dealt with.

So if not oil, what is the real threat of the Rena?

In the rush to get salvage vessels to the site, the authorities neglected to do the usual biosecurity checks, and belatedly discovered six foreign pest species on the hull of a barge brought over from Australia.

It was “just lucky” none of the pests established themselves, because they would have created a much bigger environmental problem than the oil itself.

“The legacy of the ship wreck wouldn’t have been the oil or the other contaminants – it would have been these invasive species that would have been here for ever, because once they got established in Tauranga, they would have spread around New Zealand.”

If you’ll excuse the nautical pub, that’s a bit of a red herring.  The vessel clearly was already visiting our waters and ports, as do many others, so the risk of these species coming here via the Rena is just completely overstated.   

Other risks remained, Dr Ross said, including heavy metals and high levels of a banned anti-fouling paint, tributyltin (TBT), which is highly toxic to marine life.

The Rena was certified as TBT-free, but the chemical was still present under some layers of paint.

“A lot of the paint was scraped off and some of this TBT was released into the environment. That’s something that’s probably going to stick around for quite a while and is one of the areas of concern in terms of understanding what impacts there might be on marine life.”

Once again, the impact of one wreck with some anti-fouling paint is extremely minimal.  It’s the persistent use and concentrated contamination of marinas, harbours and small bays that are the real threat.   And as research has shown, the Rena is absolutely flourishing as an artificial reef right now.

So all in all, even though we don’t want maritime disasters like these, the actual outcome of it has been quite minimal, short term, and there really isn’t anything that researchers can point to that will remain a concern for generations to come.

In other words, the usual greenie panic amplified by a media that likes to report the Shock Horror of it all.  It then takes 5 years for a small article like this to come along and put things right.  An article less than 1% of the population will see or take in, and an article the media will point to so justify that their reporting is indeed balanced.


– Ruth Hill, RNZ


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  • Sagacious Blonde

    At the time of the Rena foundering, I wound doom-sayers up by telling them people would be swimming at the main Mt Maunganui beach on Christmas day. They were.
    It was the same when the Ruahihi Canal collapsed in 1981. The Tauranga Harbour was going to be decimated for 25 years. Didn’t happen!

    • Greenpeace apparently flew in a film crew in readiness to record the”environmental disaster” probably the biggest disappointment for them was that it didn’t happen.

      • Alfred12

        John Armstrong reporting “oil is ankle deep on Mt Beaches”. As one of the clean up volunteers at the time I obviously missed that.

  • Greg M

    What a relief. We all should offer a huge thank you to Phil Goff and his new shovel for saving the environment. On ya Phil.

    • Steve (North Shore)

      He will probably use that same shovel to try and save Auckland

  • JohnO

    The ability of the ocean to break down fuel oil has been vastly under-estimated. As evidence of that I would cite several of the natural oil seeps from the ocean floor 50 miles off the world renowed white sand beaches of California. These natural oil seeps have been releasing tons of crude oil into the ocean for years …all day every day and nature disperses and breaks up the oil. There are some square kilometers of ocean floor nearby with lots of the heaviest fraction of crude sludged apon them , but the rest of the oil evapourates into the air, or is broken down biologically, or dissolves in the sea-water. Oil is has an organic origin and can be dealt to quite well with our environment.

    • Yellow Admiral

      I fully agree with JohnO. I would go further and ask what the long-term impact was/has been of the millions of tonnes of heavy fuel oil contained in the bunkers of all the ships sunk during the first and second world wars? While there is a small risk where some of those ships still contain oil, I’m not aware of any ongoing damage to the marine environment.

      • Frank N Further

        True. Just as one example, RMS Niagara was sunk just off Bream Head, north of Auckland, after hitting a mine in 1940. I don’t know how much fuel oil and other “nasties” it had on board. From what I have read gold and other cargo was recovered, but I don’t recall reading anything of any recovery of the fuel oil. Nor have I read of any environmental damage around the area, the entrance to the Hauraki gulf.

  • Cadwallader

    The grounding occured about the time of the RWC in 2011. I heard a British journalist speaking to Murray Deaker, who, due to being in NZ to cover the Cup was seconded by his editor in the UK to visit Tauranga to see whether there was much of a story. He related to Mr Deaker how the NZ media, specifically TV3 were rabid in their attempts to fix the blame on anyone but primarily the Government. There was no expressed concern as to environmental impact by the msm just a hunger to blame and denigrate. Nothing has changed it seems given recent events.

  • STAG

    Ship wrecks almost never amount to the horror that is assigned to them by excitable morons in the immediate aftermath.

    When the Rena first went up on the reef the Chief Engineer asked for permission to transfer his bunkers in to a single aft tank while they still had power and heating in the tanks. MNZ morons said no don’t touch the oil!!! The fact that there is barely a mariner left in that organisation didn’t help in the response at all.

    Had that oil een transfered then there is no doubt that the Plan to use the Awanuia to remove it would have been successful and there would have been no oil spill at all.

    MNZ ill informed and idiotic interface directly caused the oil spill from that vessel.

    • JC

      The most damage done then and continuing to today and forevermore were Maori wailing about it. Take them out of the picture and the damage was trifling compared to dozens of other oil escapes of the last few decades.

      For godsakes.. a few hundred tonnes spread over many square miles of sea.. it was always going to be recoverable around the coasts.


  • Abjv

    So the biggest problem was foreign marine growths on a barge rushed over from Australia to help with the cleanup? The oil is not a problem if it all comes out at once so is practical to attack. It is far more of a problem if it oozes out at several gallons a day, such as from USS Arizona or HMAS Canberra wrecks. BTW I thought Niagara was coal.

  • SteveWrathall

    Just like the Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska in 1989, the “clean-up” did more damage than the oil. Water-blasting rocks killed masses of microfauna. Within a year the salmon population was above average