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Volunteers comb Bay of Plenty coast for oil-spill victims

Tuesday, October 11, 2011 – Wellington



Forest & Bird media release for immediate use

Volunteers comb Bay of Plenty coast for oil-spill victims

Around 70 volunteers including Forest & Bird members were searching the Bay of Plenty coastline today for injured birds as the oil spill worsened from the grounded container ship the Rena, Forest & Bird said.

Volunteers were combing beaches in the western Bay of Plenty as news came of a major new breach in the fuel tanks of the Rena, which ran aground on Astrolabe Reef off the coast from Tauranga last Wednesday.

“We are faced with a potential disaster along our coastline and many bird species are currently breeding. The news that the oil spill is getting much worse is a huge worry,” Forest & Bird’s Tauranga-based Central North Island Field Officer Al Fleming said.

“Volunteers are out today searching along the coast and on Matakana and Motiti Islands.”

“Conditions have been unfavourable for trying to recover birds at sea today due to 2.5 metre swells and strong winds It is unsafe to be out on the water,” he said.

Al Fleming has been based at the Oiled Wildlife Response Unit in Mount Maunganui, communicating with Forest & Bird members on how they can help, sharing ideas with the Incident Command Centre and talking to media about the threats to wildlife.

There are estimated to be 10,000 grey-faced petrels, thousands of diving petrels, white-faced storm petrels and fluttering shearwaters breeding on nearby islands, including colonies on islands off the Coromandel Peninsula and feeding in the Bay of Plenty.

A colony of several thousand gannets is on White Island and around 200 to 300 little blue penguins are estimated to be living along the coast in the vicinity of the oil spill.

By the end of yesterday, seven little blue penguins and two pied shags had been rehabilitated after being fouled by oil and washed ashore.

It is so far unclear if seabirds such as diving petrels and shearwaters have been badly affected because they do not come ashore on the mainland. Diving petrels are currently nursing small chicks and fluttering shearwaters are sitting on eggs.

These seabirds breed in burrows so any birds with oil on their feathers could carry that oil into their nests and harm their chicks as well. If the parent birds have swallowed oil, both they and any chicks they feed could be killed.

Shorebirds such as New Zealand dotterels, oystercatchers 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 Tauranga and other harbours and estuaries along the Bay of Plenty coast.

Fur seals are currently moulting ashore on headlands, islands, and beaches throughout the region. Islands and rocky headlands are also home to mussels, crabs, and skinks.

Whales and dolphins are in the area and a blue whale and a calf were seen in the vicinity of Astrolabe Reef a week ago. Filter-feeding whales are at risk from sticky oil clinging to their baleen plates as they feed.

The effect on finfish, shellfish, crustaceans, filter feeders and other sea floor life could be disastrous.

“Without quick action, the oil will blanket our filter feeding marine life which are not only important water filters but also crucial in the diets of many animals. Eventually the oil will accumulate throughout the food web,” Al Fleming said.

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