The first photographs have emerged of a stricken fishing vessel that has run aground on rocks and is spilling oil near an endangered penguin colony. The vessel’s owner says an investigation will need to uncover the “mistake” that led to the accident.
The 25m Austro Carina, owned and operated by Lyttelton-based Pegasus Fishing Ltd, ran aground near picturesque Shell Bay on the southeastern side of the Banks Peninsula on Sunday night.
A helicopter recovered the skipper and three crew of the vessel, which was carrying 10,000L of diesel and 400L of hydraulic oil.
Regional council Environment Canterbury (ECan) says initial aerial observations show oil from the vessel was headed towards Shell Bay and the neighbouring bays.
The Herald has this morning captured images that show the vessel marooned on rocks by a high cliff face.
The stricken Austro Carina ran around on Sunday night. Photo / George Heard
Vessel owner, Tony Threadwell told the Herald it was obvious “somebody made a mistake”.
“We’re carrying out an internal inquiry as well - it’s like driving your car and you end up off the road,” he said.
“The crew are physically okay but a bit traumatised.”
He said the 45-year-old boat had no history of accidents.
Shell Bay on Banks Peninsula is home to endangered penguins and other seabirds. Photo / George Heard
Shell Bay is home to a number of species including the endangered yellow-eyed penguin, or hoiho, the white-flippered penguin and little blue penguins.
The nationally vulnerable spotted shag also calls the bay home, along with seals and their pups.
An oil expert has questioned whether authorities have the expertise to protect the creatures’ homes from a “dose of diesel”.
There are fears of contamination from the accident. Photo / George Heard
Dougal Roberts, who has more than three decades of experience in the United States and Middle Eastern oil exploration, also lives at Banks Peninsula.
He claimed that New Zealand doesn’t have an oil spill response organisation “with any teeth”.
“You need somebody on that site working out if they can plug and empty the diesel and hydraulic fuel tanks - people experienced in that,” said Roberts.
“What we see from Environment Canterbury and Maritime NZ doesn’t show that experience.”
Shell Bay is on the southeastern coast of the Banks Peninsula. Photo / Google Maps
ECan has told NZME that 30 trained responders have taken control of the spill.
The council plans to “safely minimise the impact of an incident of this nature on the environment”, a spokesperson said.
Roberts said the peninsula was expecting southerly winds today, which would push diesel and oil into the bay.
The vessel has run aground on the picturesque Banks Peninsula near Christchurch. Photo / George Heard
He said the public has been given little information on the extent of the spill.
“This is our response to oil spills and I think we’re going to be disappointed. I’d like not to be - but we’ve got ten thousand litres of diesel and if they recover one hundred of it, I’d be surprised.”
Shell Bay is a tier-two spill under Maritime NZ’s three-tier system. Within 12 nautical miles of the coast and expected to cost less than $250,000 to clean up, it requires a regional council response.
Shell Bay is the home of a number of species - including the endangered yellow-eyed penguin. Photo / Dunedin Tourism
What the spill response will look like
Professor Chris Battershill, who led the environmental response for the Rena oil spill in 2011, defended the country’s spill responses.
“The Rena was a wake-up call for everybody, including regional councils, on how to handle public response to something like this,” he said.
Among the improvements are instant access to exact locations of the habitats of species in danger and better collaboration with local iwi and hapu who have advanced understanding of the land and its patterns.
“They’d be well-advised to take advice from people on the coast,” said Battershill.
Professor Chris Battershill led the environmental response for the Rena oil spill in 2011.
“There will be oceanographic models to overlay on current weather conditions to find out if the ship will break up - depending on how badly damaged it is.”
Battershill said Environment Canterbury’s first steps would be to send a crew to determine if the ship was stuck, where the fuel tanks were and if they would start leaking.
Maritime NZ, the Department of Conservation (DoC) and Environment Canterbury will then urgently review where habitats are and develop a risk assessment.
“Then, if it’s possible, set up a containment around the oil and diesel areas - but that could be difficult on an exposed coast.”
Battershill also noted that diesel is more toxic than heavy fuel - but dissipated quicker.
If diesel had leaked into the ocean and reached shorelines, the fumes would harm wildlife rather than smother them.
“The volume is low compared to other shipwrecks, but it depends if it was released all at once and it coincides with when birds were coming back to shore overnight, it could have a disastrous effect.”
Emma Parr, the regional council’s on-scene commander said conditions yesterday were “extremely challenging and unsafe”, and it was taking advice on wildlife response from Massey University and the Department of Conservation.
Parr said there’s understood to be debris in the water and urged boaties to avoid the area and not to touch the spill or affected wildlife.
- Nathan Morton is a Christchurch-based reporter with a focus on South Island news. He joined the Herald in 2022.
Take your Radio, Podcasts and Music with you