Nightmare In New Zealand: The Astrolabe Reef Disaster – OpEd


It has all the makings of a growing catastrophe. The 236m Rena, inclined and spilling oil into pristine seas on Astrolabe Reef 14 miles off Tauranga, New Zealand, providing a murderous cargo that has already killed hundreds of fish and sea birds. Three tug boasts have been despatched to the vessel, attempting to remove remaining oil stocks on board, though operations are at the mercy of the weather and the precarious location of the Rena.

What is even more worrying than the oil are the containers that pose an enormous threat once they start falling into the sea. Of the 1368 containers on board, 11 carry an assortment of hazardous materials, including ferrosilicon, an alloy of iron and silicon that can prove highly flammable and noxious on contact with moisture. Oil can be dispersed in time – but the other substances will be a more formidable proposition.

The accused culprit is an unnamed Filipino captain who has been charged with operating a vessel in a manner causing unnecessary danger of risk. The captain’s name was not released on account of fears of reprisals by the particularly green-friendly residents, conveyed through his lawyer.

Maritime New Zealand director Catherine Taylor has provided a grim assessment. ‘I must prepare you. It will get much worse’ (Daily Mirror, Sat 15). New Zealand Transport Minister Steven Joyce has stated how bad it might get. ‘The worst case scenario is the Rena sinks where it is because that water is deep and it will harder to get access to the oil and salvage it.’

Figures are being thrown about as to how severe this disaster ranks in the annals of environmental doom. In terms of the amount of oil on the Rena, the tonnage is small (1,700) as compared with other vessels – the Prestige tanker that met its fate off the Galician coast in 2002 leaked 76,000 tonnes. But even small amounts released into delicate ecosystems can have an enormous environmental impact.

There are a few issues that are starting to emerge that make the situation even more dire. The Rena is owned by Greece-based Costomare Inc, but registered in Liberia. The ‘Flag of Convenience’ system has come into play here, a situation which might explain, in part, why there were inconsistencies with the ship’s charts to begin with, not to mention problems with the engines propulsion and the radio.

In a FoC situation, owners register vessels in countries where regulation of the shipping industry is less stringent (National Business Review, Sat 15). Host responsibilities can thereby be evaded. Chances for abuse are frequent, and have involved the use of cheaper labour, instances of crews not being paid, stranding of crew members, and even fatalities.

The Maritime Union of New Zealand has its suspicions that Maritime NZ may have known of problems with the vessel prior to it hitting the reef at 2.20 am on October 5. The union even has a precise date: that the deficiencies were unearthed by maintenance crews on September 28. The key now is to link the behaviour of the captain, the state of the ship and the pitfalls of the flag of convenience to the disaster. If done, the entire system will be brought into question. In the words of the National Secretary of the Maritime Union of Australia, Paddy Crumlin, ‘If you don’t control shipping, it controls you’ (MUA, Oct 13).

Binoy Kampmark

Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: [email protected]

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *