Break up fears for ship aground off New Zealand

Maritime New Zealand Incident Controller Rob Service said "the damage is quite extensive"

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There are fears that a large container ship which is stuck on a reef off the coast of New Zealand could break up and leak more oil.

The Rena struck the Astrolabe Reef about 12 nautical miles from Tauranga Harbour on Wednesday.

If the ship breaks up, it could release 1,700 tonnes of heavy fuel oil into the Bay of Plenty, one of New Zealand's top tourist destinations.

Australia is sending experts to New Zealand to help mop up the spill.

The Rena has already created an oil slick more than 5km (3 miles) long.

'Disastrous'

Transport Minister Steven Joyce said salvage teams were working hard to remove oil from the stricken ship to protect the bay, which is home to whales, dolphins, seals, penguins and a variety of other birds.

"The difficulty is that the situation is deteriorating and according to the advice I've received, there's the possibility it could break up and sink," Mr Joyce told the New Zealand Herald.

Later he told reporters: "The situation with the oil is going to get worse before it gets better."

The Department of Conservation has established two wildlife rescue centres and dispatched teams to scour the beaches and islands of the Bay of Plenty looking for oil-covered animals and birds.

A little blue penguin found at Papamoa Beach, covered in oil on 7 October after the Liberian cargo ship, Rena, hit a reef. Teams are scouring the Bay of Plenty for oil-covered animals and birds

Four seabirds were found dead in the oil slick on Thursday, and Maritime New Zealand (MNZ) said more birds covered in oil were discovered on Friday.

MNZ said it was preparing for the possibility the existing slick would hit the coast in the coming days after dispersants sprayed from aircraft proved ineffective.

"It has the potential to be very, very serious indeed, simply because of the age of the ship, the damage she's sustained, and the 1,700 tonnes of heavy fuel on board," Andrew Berry of MNZ told Radio New Zealand.

MNZ has established a one-kilometre maritime exclusion zone around the ship and warned that the fuel oil is toxic.

The animal welfare group Forest and Bird said the timing of the accident, in the middle of the breeding season for birds, was "disastrous".

Three officials from the Sydney Ports Corporation are leaving for New Zealand on Saturday, along with more staff from New South Wales (NSW) Maritime and other agencies. The Australian state of New South Wales is also sending a large oil skimmer to assist the New Zealand authorities.

It is not known why the Liberian-flagged ship ran aground on the reef. None of the 25 crew was injured.

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