New Zealand said it was preparing for an environmental disaster Friday as a container ship stranded off the North Island threatened to break up and spill oil into the pristine Bay of Plenty.

 

The 47,000 ton container vessel "Rena," which hit a reef off the coast of Tauranga earlier this week, has already created an oil slick more than 3 miles long that has killed a number of seabirds.

 

But the pollution will be far worse if the ship breaks up on the Astrolabe Reef, releasing the 1,700 tons of heavy fuel oil on board into a marine environment that is home to whales, dolphins, seals and penguins.

 

Environment Minister Nick Smith told Fairfax Media the accident "has the potential to be New Zealand's most significant maritime pollution disaster in decades."

 

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

 

By late Friday they had discovered one blue penguin, on Papamoa beach near Tauranga, which was reported to be in good health, despite the oil on its plumage.

 

Transport Minister Steven Joyce said salvage teams were scrambling to remove oil from the stricken vessel to protect the bay, one of the country's top tourist destinations.

 

"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," Joyce told the New Zealand Herald.

 

Joyce later told reporters: "The situation with the oil is going to get worse before it gets better, I think there's no getting around that."

 

Maritime New Zealand said it was preparing for the possibility the existing oil 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 that she's sustained and the 1,700 tonnes of heavy fuel oil on board," MNZ pollution response manager Andrew Berry told Radio New Zealand.

 

The weather in the Bay of Plenty is forecast to deteriorate early next week, adding urgency to efforts to remove the oil in case the Liberian-flagged ship breaks apart in heavy swells.

 

"The worst-case scenario is a significant shoreline impact, which is why we have teams on standby," MNZ on-site controller Rob Service said.

 

The agency found four dead birds in the slick on Thursday and said more "oiled" birds were discovered in the water Friday. It did not say how many.

 

MNZ said it had established a 0.62 miles maritime exclusion zone around the ship and urged sailors to stay away from the toxic discharge.

 

"The heavy fuel oil leaking from the Rena is toxic to humans, so contact with it is to be avoided," it said.

"It will stick to the hull of any boat that passes through it and will be difficult to remove without causing even more contamination."

 

Animal welfare group Forest and Bird said species of marine birdlife at risk from the spill included blue penguins, shearwaters, gannets and petrels.

 

The group's seabird specialist, Karen Baird, said the timing of the accident, in the middle of breeding season, was "disastrous."

 

"Many of them are sitting on eggs and some of them have got chicks that are starting to hatch, so that's a big worry for us," she told 3News.

 

It is not known why the ship ran aground in the early hours of Wednesday morning. None of the 25-man crew was injured in the accident.

 

Copyright 2011  AFP Global Edition