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Troubled waters

4th November 2011 by Andrew Matheson, | 2 Comments

Rena aground

The Rena stuck on a reef off the New Zealand coast

A ship, a dark night and a reef.  When the container ship Rena ran aground last month while heading for the port of Tauranga in New Zealand’s Bay of Plenty, significant environmental damage threatened.  Certainly a large amount of fuel oil spilled from the vessel, much of which washed up on nearby coasts.  Containers toppled off the ship and many spilled their contents in the ocean.

An event like this triggers a large response, involving many agencies of national and local government, the military, and thousands of members of the public who have volunteered to assist with cleaning up beaches and rescuing wildlife.  The work is still going on, with salvage experts on board the ship pumping out the last of the oil.  They’re working in difficult and dangerous conditions as the ship is close to breaking apart.

The news isn’t all bad, though.   The oil reached only a small part of the coastline, and the effects on wildlife have been less than expected.  As New Zealand gears up for summer, visitors should know that only a very few of the country’s spectacular beaches are affected, and New Zealand is certainly open for business and travel.

The grounding of the Rena did turn a spotlight on Philippine–New Zealand relations.  When two countries like New Zealand and the Philippines have more and more to do with each other, there will at times be difficulties and tragedies affecting the relationship, as I’ve commented before.


A container and contents on Mount Maunganui beach

The ship’s captain and crew were Filipinos, and I was troubled to see a few media reports of antagonism to the Filipino community in general as a result of the incident.  The Philippine embassy in Wellington has looked into this, talking to members of the Filipino community in Tauranga and getting a staff member in the area to investigate.   They found a different picture from that painted in the media reports: the “negative reactions to the Filipino people there are few and are not reflective of the general sentiments of the public in Tauranga”.  That’s encouraging to hear, and I’m pleased that Ambassador Virginia Benavidez is taking every opportunity during her introductory calls to dispel rumours of an anti-Filipino backlash.

All but two of the crew have returned home.  The captain and one other officer remain in New Zealand as they have been charged with maritime safety offences relating to the incident, and will face court trials in the future.  Legal action is taken regardless of the nationality of the alleged offenders.

The growing Filipino community in New Zealand is as concerned as anyone about the effects of the ship’s grounding.  The embassy has called for Pinoys living in New Zealand — Piwis — to draw on the “time-honoured spirit of bayanihan”, or community spirit.  Filipino community groups are organising ‘Pinoy brigades’ to join the thousands of volunteers in the Bay of Plenty clean-up operation.

The Philippine–New Zealand relationship is sound enough not to be threatened by an event such as the grounding of the Rena, and the real spirit of Kiwis and Pinoys has shone through.

Penguins released

Penguins cleaned of oil being released in an enclosure (all photos from Maritime New Zealand)

2 Responses to “Troubled waters”

  1. Samaan Buisson Samaan Buisson says:

    Hi, pleased to hear that the effect on the environment is not as bad as expected. I’m a Kiwi married to a Filipina- we live right by the beach here in San Juan, La Union. My wife and I are trying to help people become aware of the need to protect the environment. We’ve found out this area’s a nesting ground for marine turtles and are working on trying to save and protect them from the poachers, stray dogs, etc. I’ve also been trying to teach the local kids and people how to swim and surf. Hope to have the pleasure to meet you sometime. Thank you for what you do.

    -Samaan Buisson

  2. Andrew Matheson says:

    Hi Samaan

    Thanks for your comment. The good news from the Bay of Plenty today is that the oil removal operation is substantially finished, with just a few remnants to be mopped up, and the job of removing the containers has begun. Beaches are reopening and the residents are feeling a lot happier.

    I was struck by a comment the mayor of Tauranga made on the radio this morning about the important work volunteers had done in cleaning the beaches. Every little bit helps, as you are demonstrating with your efforts for the turtles.


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