Black Tide – the Rena accident and its implications
New Zealanders have become accustomed to sea freight slipping silently in and out of the country’s ports without incident. But on October 5, that impression of well-oiled efficiency foundered on Astrolabe Reef, and our coastlines suddenly seemed acutely exposed. What went wrong?
It was like stepping through the wardrobe into Narnia. On one side of the door, fluorescent lights, bland office décor and a bank of computer screens. Inside, I was on a ship’s darkened bridge,listening to the deep throb of powerful engines, feeling their vibration through the floor, while a 360-degree panorama of Prince William Sound, Alaska, glided past in eerie photographic verisimilitude. Ahead, the lights of passenger ships and fishing boats twinkled in the dusk sky. On each side, brooding mountains flanked the channel.
I was on board Exxon Valdez, negotiating a narrow passage at the mouth of the sound. Two officers and a helmsman had control of the vessel. The officers spoke in clipped sentences and low voices, poring over charts and radar, taking compass bearings, listening to weather reports and monitoring ship traffic. The tension was palpable.
“Twenty minutes in here and they’re sweating,” whispered Captain Martin Burley, a lecturer at the New Zealand Maritime School. He had invited me to see the school’s multimillion-dollar ship’s bridge simulator in operation. Exxon Valdez in Prince William Sound is one of dozens of scenarios the school uses to give its trainees the experience—and responsibility—of conning a ship.
Outside, at the control desk, lecturer Captain Roy Fernandes tweaked the position of a few fishing boats and dialled up a storm. Back on the bridge, I watched sheets of rain reduce visibility to near zero. The officers of the watch studied the blips on the radar screen, considered an urgent course change and projected a grid on the bridge windows to check and recheck distances. They were sweating all right.
It wasn’t memories of the Exxon Valdez oil spill that had brought me to the school’s premises in downtown Auckland, but questions about a vessel much closer to home: the MV Rena.
I had been mentally putting myself on the container ship’s bridge on the night of October 4, trying to imagine the sequence of decisions and observations—and failed observations—that led to the catastrophic grounding and oil spill in the Bay of Plenty that had dominated the news for a month.
I know what it is to make a navigational blunder. My erroneous reading of a chart one summer’s night in the 1990s led to the grounding of my father’s launch on a mudbank in Auckland’s Tamaki River. Once we refloated on the rising tide, I compounded our woes by navigating us back down the river, all the while convinced we were motoring up it. I cringe even now at the error—a classic loss of what cognitive scientists call situational awareness, the ability to maintain a mental map that tallies with the real world.
What happened on Rena’s bridge to drive her up on a well-charted reef has not yet been made public. Did the officers on watch forget there was a navigational hazard in the vicinity? Were they aware of it, but thought it was not in their path? Did they mistake the flashing white light on nearby Motiti Island for a beacon on the reef itself? (Though the reef has no beacon, no warning of any kind.) There are many ways to lose situational awareness, and conjecture about the options is probably pointless. But one factor seems certain to have played a role: Rena’s officers were in a hurry.
Then again, say those in the industry, all mariners are in a hurry these days. The profit margins in container shipping are tighter than ever. The industry is still emerging from one of its worst-ever slumps following the 2008 global financial crisis.
“Shipping relies heavily on credit,” says Wellington-based marine risk assessor John Riding, “and at the peak of the crisis, cargo movements almost halted for a month because nobody could get bank credit lines. That had a profound effect on the market. A lot of secondhand tonnage [ships] was scrapped very quickly, and a lot of ships changed hands very cheaply. The older tonnage also became cheap to operate, and this is how MSC fuelled its expansion.”
MSC—the Mediterranean Shipping Company, to which Rena was under charter when she struck—recently overtook Maersk as the largest container shipping line in the world. MSC operates 457 vessels, with a carrying capacity of more than two billion TEU (twenty-foot-equivalent units—the size of a standard container). MSC charters most of its vessels, and it is known in the industry for driving a hard bargain. In the wake of the credit crunch, time charter rates for Panamax box ships (container ships able to traverse the locks of the Panama Canal) dropped by up to 80 per cent, from an average of US$27,000 per day for a Rena-sized ship to as little as US$5500 per day. “For a ship owner, that’s well below break-even,” says Riding.
Charter rates have rebounded somewhat, but as recently as October 2011, the industry publication Lloyd’s List DCN was running headlines such as “MSC continues to pressure Panamax charter prices” and “Boxship owners shaken by MSC bargain charter”. To stay afloat commercially (if not, in Rena’s case, physically), an owner relies on making fast passages and quick port turnarounds. The pressure on crews is intense, one marine engineer told me. “Four ports in seven days. Arrive at midnight, gone at eight. Twelve days on, 12 days off. It grinds you down,” he said.
Rena was in a hurry, and it showed. At one minute past one on the morning of October 3, two days before the grounding, Rena caught up with the coastal petroleum tanker Torea 50 nautical miles south-south-west of Napier. Torea, a vessel with a deadweight similar to that of Rena, was en route from Wellington to Marsden Point for a refill. Rena was heading to the port of Napier to offload and onload several hundred containers.
Did the officers on watch forget there was a navigational hazard in the vicinity? Were they aware of it, but thought it was not in their path? Did they mistake the flashing white light on nearby Motiti Island for a beacon on the reef itself?
Torea’s cruising speed is 14 knots, Rena’s was 17. Rena approached Torea from the starboard side, closing to within one nautical mile. This was too close for Torea’s master. He ordered a 360- degree turn to port to allow Rena “more sea room”, as he later reported.
There are no hard and fast rules about the distance an overtaking ship must keep from a vessel she is passing. The merchant shipping regulations state: “Any vessel overtaking any other shall keep out of the way of the vessel being overtaken.” What constitutes “out of the way” is left to the discretion of the officer with the con of the vessel, but one might assume there was some cursing on Torea’s bridge when she was forced to make her precautionary loop.
Rena berthed at Napier at 0500, was required to move to allow another vessel in, then repositioned to unload and load containers. Delayed by the manoeuvres, she didn’t slip her lines and head north until 0940 the next morning. Her destination was Tauranga, 284 nautical miles away.
Tauranga is a tidal port, reached by a channel that runs between Matakana Island and Mount Maunganui. At the peak of the ebb or flood, the current at the harbour entrance reaches three knots during neap tides and four knots during springs. For a grade-A vessel like Rena, the tidal window at Tauranga is about two hours either side of slack water. Miss that window, and the current in the channel exceeds the maximum flow of 1.5 knots that a vessel of her size can safely navigate. The ship would then be obliged to wait outside the harbour entrance for the next available tide.
High water at Tauranga on October 5 was at 0153. At 17 knots, the passage to Tauranga would take almost 17 hours, meaning that the Rena would arrive at the pilot station at 0240, already an hour after high water.
Rena’s master had no intention of missing his window.
After rounding East Cape, Rena followed a straight course which brought her abreast of Whakaari/White Island shortly after midnight. Sailing conditions were perfect. The night was clear, with a light northerly breeze, slight seas and a two-metre swell easing. Once clear of Volkner Rocks, Rena turned a few degrees to port and followed a bearing of 262, heading roughly for the northern end of Matakana Island. Had she stayed on that course she would have cleared Astrolabe Reef by two nautical miles. Even this would have been cutting things fine: the New Zealand Nautical Almanac and the Port of Tauranga both recommend vessels keep three miles north of the reef.
Instead, at 0137, the ship began a slow, steady turn to port, shaving a degree off her earlier course every five minutes. A plot of Rena’s last minutes shows the ship on a heading of 257, then 255, 254, 252. The new course put the ship in line with “A” beacon, an aid to navigation off the entrance to Tauranga Harbour, near where ships pick up the harbour pilot.
An officer on Rena’s bridge may have seen the radar signal of “A” beacon appear on his screen and adjusted course straight for it, hoping to slice precious minutes off the passage. As it turned out, he sliced something else.
At 0218, the bulbous snout and plate-steel hull of the 236-metre, 47,230-tonne container ship met the volcanic pinnacle of Astrolabe Reef at full speed. The vessel came to a groaning, shuddering halt within half its length. Many of the 25 Filipino crew on board would have been sleeping when she struck. They were wrenched from their dreams to face the mariner’s timeless dread: a ship on the rocks.
New Zealand is a boating nation. A navigational snafu of this magnitude horrifies and fascinates us. One aspect of the grounding that has puzzled many boaties is that Rena did not appear to have had the ship’s equivalent of a chart plotter—a device that many recreational boats possess.
A chart plotter uses GPS to mark the position of a vessel on an electronic chart, and shifts its position as the boat moves. A skipper can zoom in and out to see where he or she is in relation to a host of islands, rocks, shipwrecks, lighthouses and so on—all the details present on a traditional paper chart. Depth, speed, time to destination and other data are also shown on the screen. A desired path, with waypoints, can be entered into the system in the same way as you program a car navigation system, or even a cellphone with a GPS app, to get where you want to go. Some chart plotters also warn if you’re heading somewhere you don’t want to go.
Ships require a fancier version of the same concept, one that complies with International Maritime Organisation (IMO) regulations. The industry standard is called ECDIS, Electronic Chart Display and Information System. As well as showing the ship’s position and course on an electronic display, the system can overlay radar inputs and depth information and show the location, identity and destination of ships in the vicinity—the latter acquired through the widely used Automatic Identification System (AIS). An array of alerts and alarms can be set, to confirm moment by moment that the ship is on course, and warn if it is not. In 2008, the IMO made the use of ECDIS on ships mandatory, with rolling deadlines starting from 2012.
Installing ECDIS on Rena would have cost about $30,000—less than the cost of two days’ charter—with perhaps an additional $10,000 to train the vessel’s watchkeepers how to use it. A ship of Rena’s size and year of build (1990) is not obliged to install ECDIS until July 2017. Despite the fact that the system has been available for more than a decade, by one estimate only five per cent of the world’s 100,000 merchant shipping vessels carry it.
John Riding says the slow uptake of the technology can be attributed to cost and a culture of inertia. “International shipping is extremely compliance-driven,” he says. “It doesn’t act until it’s forced to. In the current economic climate, you can understand why an owner wouldn’t make an investment until it was mandatory to do so. If you’ve just bought a 20-year-old ship like Rena—and Rena changed hands only last year—you’re probably not going to spend thirty thousand dollars on an electronic chart system.”
Would ECDIS have kept Rena off the reef? It is impossible to know. There have been instances where ECDIS-equipped ships have grounded, typically the result of passage details being entered incorrectly into the system by crew. But the fact that the industry’s governing body has made electronic navigation mandatory indicates that it is considered an important step towards improving maritime safety.
An IMO-commissioned study found that ECDIS reduced the risk of grounding and collision by more than 30 per cent.
Common sense suggests that it’s a lot harder to lose situational awareness if all your navigational inputs are on a single screen, updating in real time and triggering alarms if you stray off your predetermined passage or into an exclusion zone (around a reef, for example) that was programmed before the voyage. On a nonECDIS ship, the watch-keeping officer has to walk to the chart table to check his ship’s position, using a ruler and pencil to convert latitude and longitude to a cross on the paper. And he is reliant on his own powers of observation to tell him if he is heading into danger.
Some mariners defend the tried-and-true paper method, saying it has kept a lot of ships out of harm’s way for a long time—although perhaps not as many as might be supposed. Recent statistics for global shipping incidents make grim reading. A 2010 report from the British Maritime and Coastguard Agency (the UK equivalent of Maritime New Zealand) notes that between 2000 and 2005, an average of 18 ships collided, grounded, sank, caught fire or exploded per day worldwide, generating insurance claims of $4 million a day. Sixty per cent of those incidents were attributed to human error.
One such error has resulted in a ship that is balancing on a Bay of Plenty reef, buffeted by ocean swells, and could snap in half at any moment.
Seafarers Refer to a stricken ship like Rena as a “casualty”, a word that seems inappropriate for an inanimate steel behemoth the length of two rugby fields. The real casualties, the ones that demand our focus and consideration, are the people and wildlife on whom this misfortune has befallen.
As with every maritime disaster involving spilt oil, the most iconic sufferers are the total gross tonnage trend birds, which fetch up on the shores like fallen angels, feathers slicked as if dipped in liquorice, dead things walking. Within two days of the accident, a wildlife recovery centre had been set up midway between Mount Maunganui and Papamoa. Led by veterinarians and bird specialists from Massey University, but drawing in expertise from the Department of Conservation, regional councils, zoos and museums as well, the centre has grown into a tent city—what spokesperson Paul Mulrooney describes as a “MASH for wildlife”.
When I visit the facility in late October, Massey veterinarian Micah Jensen is in the triage tent, assessing oiled penguins caught the previous night. First, she checks the amount of contamination, calling out her observations to a scribe—“Back low, tail heavy, flippers moderate,” and so on—for each part of the bird, giving it a score out of 10. She weighs it, then holds it while another vet takes a blood sample from its foot. “We’ll measure the glucose level, and then spin some down to get the red blood cell count,” Jensen says. If either is below a critical threshold, the chances of survival are slim and the bird will be euthanised.
She gives the penguin to me to hold while she inserts a tube into its stomach, to rehydrate it. The bird seems lively enough, twisting its head to give me good hard pecks on the hand. But many of the other casualties are worryingly placid. All the fight seems to have gone out of them. They lie calm and still on the table—not a good sign; lethargy may equate to an advanced state of shock. For this reason, the birds aren’t cleaned straight away. They need to be stabilised, or the stress of being washed may kill them.
A sign outside the mess tent notes that 346 birds are being cared for in the facility. To cope with the new daily arrivals, a carpenter is building drainpipe-and-mesh penguin pens, each about the size of a baby’s cot. Other contractors are building long-term penguin enclosures. The birds will be here until there is no risk of re-oiling when they are released.
One part of the unit looks like a swimming-pool showroom. Each circular pool has a dozen penguins in it, taking their morning exercise. Some seem reluctant, standing on a platform, feathers clumped, bedraggled-looking. Others do laps, splashing about, doing a kind of sidestroke, first one flipper, then the other. With penguins, the key objective is restoration of the waterproofing and thermal efficiency of the plumage. Penguin feathers are designed to preserve a layer of warm air close to the body. If this layer breaks down, they end up soggy, shivering, at risk of hypothermia and disease. It takes many days for a de-oiled penguin to preen its way back to health, and the wildlife centre gives them the time and care for this to happen.
A short distance away from the exercise yard, an aviary holds 60 healthy New Zealand dotterels, collected pre-emptively in case of further spills from the grounded ship. In the worst-case scenario—loss of the wild population and irremediable oiling of their dune habitat—these back-up birds will become the local nucleus of the species, one of the country’s most endangered shorebirds. So not only is the wildlife centre MASH for penguins, shags and seals, it’s Noah’s ark for dotterels.
But for many birds—more than 2000 at the time of writing—the centre is neither of these things; it is simply the morgue. Outside a tent with a hand-scrawled sign reading “Dead things here”, I meet Stuart Hunter, a young wildlife pathologist from Massey. Over the previous week, he has conducted 250 necropsies on oiled birds. Some were so thickly coated they looked like “a lump of tar with a beak”, he says. It has been a harrowing experience for all the staff. On the first big day of the spill, 700 birds came through the centre’s doors.
Inside the pathology tent are rows of oil-stained plastic bins, one per species: diving petrel, fluttering shearwater, white-faced storm petrel, Antarctic prion, snowy albatross and many more. Hunter’s rapid autopsies suggest that few died from ingesting toxic material. Most birds likely succumbed to hypothermia, he says. I saw evidence of penguins’ susceptibility to cold in the recovery tents, where newly washed penguins shivered non-stop despite having warm air blown over them from several industrial-sized hair driers. They’re plucky creatures, but without their thermal “underlay”, they can’t survive.
That evening, I go on penguin patrol around the Mount. We meet in a back room of the surf club—20 volunteers and DOC staff kitting themselves up with coveralls, gloves, gumboots, head torches and penguin boxes— while out front a wedding reception is in full swing. I join Dave Richards and Paul Cuming, both members of the Oiled Wildlife Response Unit. Paul has been involved in a 20-year project monitoring grey-faced petrels—a type of muttonbird known to Maori as oi which nest under the pohutukawa on the upper slopes of the Mount. Dave has focused on the Mount’s penguin population, which he estimates to be around 400 pairs.
Both men have been out searching for oiled birds almost every night since the grounding. It is now the weekend, but as Cuming says, “There are no weekends when there’s an oil spill to respond to.” They have just come back from an overnight trip to pest-free Rabbit Island/Motuotau, offshore of the main Mount beach, where they collected a dozen oiled birds.
Richards’ two teenage children, Ben and Rebekah, and wife Tina are as passionate about penguins as he is and are heading out with teams that night as well. The couple were once missionaries in Burkina Faso; their zeal is now for saving birds.
The tide is low when we set out anticlockwise around the Mount, or Mauao, as it has been officially known since being returned to local iwi in 2008. It is still light enough to see the oil splatters on the rocks, as though someone has run amok with buckets of black paint. One area smells like a road-sealing project.
Ships like Rena run on residual oil, also called bunker oil or heavy fuel oil—the stuff that is left over when the lighter fractions of petroleum have been distilled off during the refining process. It’s cheap, and ships use onboard heating units to reduce its viscosity from a tar-like consistency to a syrup able to be pumped through the fuel lines.
We can hear the penguins—little blues singing at sea. They do that prior to coming ashore and making their way to nests either among the rocks above high tide or in unused petrel burrows on the hillsides. Right on dark we start finding them, standing in a contem plative posture near the shore, getting ready to head inland. They are not hard to catch, though the boulders are slippery with algae, and must have been doubly treacherous when the oil was sloshing in here a week ago.
All the ones we find are clean, so we mark their heads with a stripe of Twink, to show other teams that may come across them that they have been checked. So far, half of them have had to be taken away for cleaning. The remainder could strike oil at any time.
Oil is an indiscriminate killer of seabirds, and the Rena grounding couldn’t have happened at a worse time of year—in the middle of the breeding season for many species. Even birds that breed far away visit the productive waters of the Bay of Plenty to feed. Many of the dead have been Bullers shearwaters, which nest on the Poor Knights, 350 km to the north.
Richards shows me a penguin nest which has been a particular heartbreak for the team. One oiled parent was caught one night, and its oiled mate was caught the next. The chick within their single egg will die. Initially it was thought that the eggs in such nests could be incubated artificially, but when the scale of the problem was realised, that option was ruled out.
“This season’s breeding effort will be lost—we have to accept that,” says Richards. “The best we can do is save as much of the breeding population as we can.” But to walk away and leave eggs to perish—it hurts.
Community appreciation helps keep team spirits up. A group of late-night promenaders passes us on the track. “I feel so proud,” says one woman. “You guys are doing such a good job.”
Praise is lavished on beach clean-up crews, too. I meet a group on their knees at Papamoa Beach, laboriously sifting and skimming and dropping trowelfuls of sand-crusted oil into plastic bags.
With their gleaming white Tyvec coveralls and blue gloves, the volunteers could have been surgeons in scrubs, operating on a malignancy. And this is how many residents feel about the spill, and why more than 8000 have signed up to clean the beaches. Something cancerous has seeped into their lives, and they want it gone.
“We grew up here. A place like this never leaves you,” says one.
During the 1980s, my own family lived in Tauranga for 18 months. My daughter was born here. Even with that brief sojourn, I feel a personal link to what is happening, and can understand the emotions of a woman who tells me, “The lump hasn’t left my throat since this happened.” Driving between Tauranga and the
Mount, I find my eyes flicking involuntarily to the shores of estuaries, scanning for telltale dark patches. Or watching shadows on the water and thinking, “Is that oil?”
A week has elapsed since the black tides rolled in, casting gumboot-sized gobs of tar on the beach and escalating the event into “New Zealand’s worst environmental disaster”. The 350-tonne spill coincided with strong onshore winds and spring tides—a deadly combination that pushed oil right up into the marram grass on the dunes. Much of it has since sunk into the sand, a dormant threat that could emerge during adverse weather and sea conditions. Research from overseas spills shows that oil can persist in tidal sediments for up to 30 years. The longterm toxic impacts on plant life are little known, although mutation rates in mangroves have been found to increase as a result of oil contamination.
Papamoa Surf Club chairman Shaun Smith rides up on his quad bike. We talk about the clean-up and squint at the sparkling sea. Beyond the pancake-flat island of Motiti, on whose rocky shores containers have burst open and disgorged their contents, lies Rena, looking herself like a small island. The water is blue and inviting, the surf one metre and clean. “Tomorrow’s opening day for the surf lifesaving season,” Smith says. “In a month, there would normally be two thousand people on this beach. Three thousand that way—” he points towards Te Puke—“and ten thousand at the Mount. Now nobody knows when the beaches will be open.”
The volunteers stack their bags of spoil and walk back up the access track. They are done for the day. Tomorrow, another team will assemble to see what the tide has washed For many on the clean-up roster, the work contributes not only to the healing of the environment, but of themselves. Grief, anger, dismay—the emotional toll of the grounding has been intense, for some traumatic. Nursing nature is strong medicine.
At a Tauranga farmers’ market I meet Nikki Ross, a gourmet pie-maker from Papamoa, selling her fare—slow-roasted pork and kawakawa, smoked kahawai and kumara, red-wine beef and blue cheese. She lives near the worst-affected part of Papamoa Beach, and the spill has hit her hard. The oiled waves seem to be not just soiling the sand but destroying a dream.
“My first reaction was that I wanted to move away,” she says. “I felt violated—that this could happen in New Zealand, let alone here, this pearl.” Her connections with the Bay go back to childhood. “I had my first kiss on Mount beach, and I surfed my first barrel at Omanu,” she says. Such ties to place aren’t readily let go. She says she has got over her initial distress, but adds, “It’s painful to see that ship every day, sitting out there on the horizon, an alien presence.”
An Alien presence when it runs aground, but a desirable presence when it delivers the goods we want and the trade we need. This is the tension we face, the equation we must balance. Shipping remains by far the most environmentally sustainable mode of transport in terms of emissions. More than 99 per cent of New Zealand imports and exports travel by ship, and they do so on supply chains that are the longest in the world. The OECD estimates that New Zealand’s distance to market adds a 10 per cent penalty to GDP. In times of cut-throat global competition, a country as far off the beaten track as New Zealand has a strong incentive to keep that transport premium as low as possible.
New Zealanders also have a deep desire to protect a marine environment that is second to none in its beauty, diversity and productivity. We want cheap shipping on the one hand, and we want to safeguard our seas on the other. Greater environmental protection might require tougher regulations and a higher operating levy to be paid by shipping companies. But such changes might lead to more expensive imports and less competitive exports. What’s a country to do?
One message the Rena disaster has driven home is that the focus must be on prevention, not cure—because, effectively, there is no cure. Capturing or dispersing spilt oil is next to impossible on the open sea, especially on a high-energy coastline like the Bay of Plenty. This should come as no surprise. Prior to the 2010 Gulf of Mexico debacle, BP’s recovery plan claimed the company could remove almost 500,000 barrels (about 75,000 tonnes) of oil per day. Over a 75-day period following the explosion and sinking of Deep-water Horizon, the company managed to skim and burn a total of about 300,000 barrels little more than half the projected recovery target for a single day.
Politicians have scoffed at those who draw doomsday parallels between Rena and pro-posed deepwater oil drilling off East Cape, but those cautionary voices should be given due consideration. In their book Blowout in the Gulf, William Freudenburg and Robert Gramling level harsh criticism at ‘she’ll-be-right’ corporate assurances about oil-spill mitigation.
“While the old adage is that oil and water don’t mix, we have yet to invent the techniques that can separate them, particularly after they are combined in significant quantities in large bodies of water,” they write. “Oil spills are not new phenomena, but in no case…from the Exxon Valdez to BP and the Deepwater Horizon, has anyone ever been able to get more than about 5–10 per cent of the oil back in the boat.” The oil recovery plans prepared by oil drilling companies and signed off by regulators are “fantasy documents”, the authors say. Reliance on them amounts to “something between incompetence and criminality”.
Even recovering bunker oil still remaining on the Rena has been a difficult task. Despite the fact that the ship’s tanks were only a third full at the time of grounding, after a month of effort, a fifth of the ship’s oil remained in the difficult-to-access starboard bunker. That last tank proved the most challenging. Air locked in hoses meant that salvage pumps had to be continually shut down and re-primed to shift the remaining 358 tonnes of heavy fuel oil.
As for retrieving containers lost overboard, salvage options seem absurdly limited. The image of vessels patrolling back and forth across the Bay, searching the seabed for container-shaped sonar targets, while floating containers wash up on beaches and split open on rocky shores, does not inspire confidence in the shipping industry’s mitigation capability.
If the ‘cure’ is so problematic and ineffective, what can be done from shore to prevent a ship from grounding? Given that 70 per cent of marine insurance claims involve navigational errors, external monitoring of a ship’s course is an obvious place to start. Many countries use vessel tracking services (VTS), the maritime equivalent of air traffic control, to assist in the management of shipping.
Vessel monitoring can be as basic as passively recording ship positions and movements or as advanced as actively warning a vessel it is about to approach an exclusion zone or hazard, or even instructing a master to change course. Each level of interaction between shore and ship requires an appropriate investment in technology and training and carries with it an escalating degree of legal liability.
It is generally assumed that a nationwide VTS capability is an investment that can be justified only by countries with a large volume of shipping traffic or a high degree of maritime risk. Nevertheless, under IMO regulations, it is mandatory for a government to go through a process of establishing risk levels, to decide if VTS is warranted. One could argue that if a country truly valued its marine environment—and, indeed, human safety at sea and socio-economic benefits of well-orchestrated commercial shipping—it might conclude that the powerful protections offered by vessel tracking were something it could not afford to be without.
Vessel tracking is based primarily on a ship’s identification and location transmissions, broadcast continuously by its Automatic Identification System transponder. AIS is mandatory on all ocean-going vessels greater than 300 gross tonnes and on all passenger vessels regardless of size. The transmissions are made on VHF radio frequencies and can be picked up by any other vessel or shore-based receiver that has line of sight.
AIS was originally developed to help reduce collisions between merchant vessels, by overcoming the confusion that can arise when ships rely on radar alone. After 9/11, its value for national security became more prominent—states have become very interested in looking at the vessels that are using their waters. A vessel that isn’t broadcasting its identity, either because it doesn’t have AIS or because it has turned its transponder off, could be a target worth investigating.
AIS is especially useful in post-event analysis following an incident at sea. The graphics of Rena’s route that accompany this article are based on her AIS transmissions, captured by state-owned enterprise Kordia, which maintains a national marine communications network in addition to providing a broadcast infrastructure for television, radio and wireless internet. Its network of receivers around the country picks up AIS transmissions from up to 300 km offshore.
At present, the only active AIS monitoring of New Zealand’s coastal waters occurs around Cook Strait, the Taranaki oil fields and the Poor Knights Islands north-east of Whangarei, though the entire coastline and its maritime traffic is observed, and shipping data is collected and used in a variety of ways. For example, it can show areas targeted by fishing vessels, and shipping routes can be overlaid against data on marine mammal movements to determine zones where ‘ship strikes’ are more likely. The data is also available to private companies such as John Riding’s consultancy, Marico Marine, which provides an independent vessel-tracking system which records and analyses AIS data to let ports know when pilots need to be mustered. In Cook Strait, the system is used by ferry companies to call out support staff when the ferry is 10 minutes from the berth, saving tens of thousands of dollars of lost productivity.
Around the Poor Knights, the AIS tracking system is used to detect infringements. Shipping traffic is prohibited between the mainland and the islands—a regulation that recognises the ecological importance of the Poor Knights and the environmental risk posed by their proximity to the country’s only oil refinery and its busiest tanker port. An electronic exclusion zone in Kordia’s monitoring system has been set up to match the coordinates of the restricted navigational area. The moment a vessel enters the zone, an automatic notification is triggered at Avalon in the Hutt Valley and an alert is transmitted via Whangarei Maritime Radio.
A 2010 report from the British Maritime and Coastguard Agency (the UK equivalent of Maritime New Zealand) notes that between 2000 and 2005, an average of 18 ships collided, grounded, sank,caught fire or exploded per day worldwide, generating insurance claims of $4 million a day. Sixty per cent of those incidents were attributed to human error.
In Kordia’s Newmarket offices, I watch a video clip of a recent incursion by a cargo ship. A screen displayed the section of Northland east coast containing the Poor Knights Islands and its associated marine reserve. A red-dashed area extended from the mainland to the islands, with a triangular piece extending seaward to the east of the Knights. It was this piece of the prohibited area that the vessel was traversing.
A woman’s voice is heard: “Vessel Anna‑belle Schulte, Annabelle Schulte, Annabelle Schulte, papa-three-juliet-golf-nine, this is Whangarei Maritime, please copy, over.”
A Germanic-sounding voice acknowledges, and the Whangarei radio operator continues: “Vessel Annabelle Schulte, are you aware you’re transiting the Poor Knights marine reserve area, over?”
The ship’s officer does not seem to be aware of this, and indeed seems unconvinced that his vessel was in the exclusion zone. Whangarei Maritime does not mince words: “Annabelle Schulte, I am aware of your position. I can see on our screen where you’re located. You are in the Poor Knights marine reserve area and you need to depart, you need to depart.”
“You mean we have to report our position, over?”
“Negative, negative. No vessels over four-five metres, no vessels over 45 metres, are allowed in that area. You are over 45 metres. You need to depart the area.”
“OK, sorry, we alter our course now.”
The operator’s voice relaxes just a trifle: “Annabelle Schulte, Whangarei Maritime, that’s all, copy. Thank you for your assistance and have a good day.”
I watch as the vessel begins moving out to sea, away from the restricted area.
It’s an impressive demonstration. Within minutes of triggering the alert, the vessel had been contacted, advised of its error, given its marching orders and left in no uncertain terms that its progress was being monitored. Imagine if such an interaction had occurred off the coast of Tauranga on the morning of October 5.
But it can’t. Not yet. And not like that. Exclusion zones must be agreed between flag states of the IMO in the United Kingdom. Each can take years to negotiate. But another weapon in the digital arsenal, called “AIS transmit”, may provide the key.
Kordia’s Drew Gilpin explained: “Currently we have AIS receive. We take the data and plot it on a chart, or use it to create an exclusion area. AIS transmit is where we create a virtual navigational aid and transmit it. The vessel sees that transmission on their AIS display.”
The transmitter doesn’t even need to be on the hazard itself; it can be generated from a shore station and show up on a ship’s ECDIS display in the same way as another vessel—a target to be avoided. Kordia account manager Mark Janor calls this technology “the art of the possible”, but says its adoption depends on political will.
“The technology exists. But where, when, why and who—those questions are for other entities to answer.”
Those entities have been slow on the uptake, and for John Riding, Rena’s apparent navigational failure highlights gaps in the administration of our waterways. It’s time, he says, “to get some salt-water common sense back into the New Zealand maritime agenda”.
In the UK, it took the grounding of the oil tanker Sea Empress in 1996, spilling 73,000 tonnes of North Sea crude on to the Welsh coastline, to wake the country up to its need for port safety reform. Cleaning up after Sea Empress took five years and cost £60 million.
Riding, who worked for the Maritime and Coastguard Agency at the time, developed a safety assessment methodology as part of that reform process. His consultancy is a branch of Marico Marine UK, a specialist in vessel traffic data management, port safety and other aspects of marine risk assessment and management. In his opinion, the most important thing that needs to come out of the Rena grounding is sorting out port reform that was never finished.
“This ship is on a reef in Bay of Plenty harbour waters. It’s well outside Tauranga port limits. The port of Tauranga doesn’t have any jurisdiction out there, and couldn’t do anything even if it wanted to. When the port companies were created and the old harbour boards were disbanded, the government of the day saw fit to make the harbourmaster an employee of the regional council and the port company a purely commercial entity. The result of that is we have no offshore salvage capability in any of our ports, because the ports are run as tight businesses, generating huge profits which in reality subsidise council rates.”
Privatisation has led to a lack of operational connectivity between the various entities: ports, regional councils and a national authority, says Riding. A port company’s focus is commercial, and its sphere of interest is defined by the terminal operations where the cash flow is generated. Regional councils, which have sole responsibility for navigational safety in port and harbour waters, have minimal maritime infrastructure or expertise. And Maritime New Zealand, the designated regulator of coastal shipping, is stretched as thin as an oil sheen across its many roles, including regulating 430,000 recreational boats, 1100 domestic fishing vessels and a large and growing aquatic adventure-tourism sector.
Riding believes New Zealand’s port interfaces require urgent review. “The most sustainable port models I’ve seen around the world are those where the ship-delivery function is isolated from the terminal operation—one in which a separate navigational authority provides navigational safety on behalf of all the users of the waterway. The regional council solution is an attempt at that, but few would suggest it’s working effectively.”
As for vessel traffic management, he says draft guidelines for assessing the need for ship monitoring in port and harbour waters were drawn up in 2008, then shelved. “New Zealand never truly understood there was a need for it, and we’ve just been handed the biggest lesson of our lives,” he says.Riding’s company has developed a fully automated AIS application that analyses a vessel’s speed and direction, assesses how far off the normal track it is (based on a database of previous vessel tracks) and transmits a VHF call plus a text message or ECDIS alert to the ship 10–15 minutes before a hazardous situation develops. Staff at the destination port are alerted simultaneously.
But, says Riding, New Zealand needs VTS protocols in place before this solution can be implemented. “That is why Maritime New Zealand’s shelving of the VTS protocols is so reprehensible. Why does New Zealand always have to learn the hard way?”
“Is the system broken? “I ask Graeme Butler, whose seabird-watching and dolphin-swimming business has been shut down by the Rena grounding. “What’s broken is the dicks who put the ship on the reef,” he says. This would have been his busiest time of year, when whales are migrating through the Bay of Plenty, often with calves in tow. Minke, fin, sei, humpback, right, beaked, orca, Bryde’s, pilot, pygmy blue—a panoply of stately mammals ply the waters of the bay. Even “big blues”, the largest animals ever to have lived on Earth, are seen almost every year. The thought of a blue whale and calf ploughing through Rena’s black disgorgement is horrible to contemplate .
Increasingly, New Zealanders’ sense of self, place and country is bound up with the health of the natural environment. This is the story we tell ourselves and the world: that our greenness and blueness—is more than a brand, it is a taonga, our common treasure.
And the seabirds. The same species that have washed up as “lumps of tar with a beak” feed in thousand-strong flocks from seas that are blackened not with oil but krill. Such precarious richness.
I came to this story not because I smelled journalistic blood in the water, but because I saw a ship on a reef, and it seemed like one environmental insult too many. I had been reading the agrarian essays of Wendell Berry, an American farmer, poet and economic critic.
In his essay Imagination in Place, Berry writes, “Hovering over nearly everything I have written is the question of how a human economy might be conducted with reverence, and therefore with due respect and kindness toward everything involved.”
I am not sure how respect and kindness towards the environment might be built into a global transport system driven by commercial forces. I suspect that few operators know much about the waters their ships are passing through. For them, the sea is a road. Environmental awareness is no more part of their job description than highway beautification is for a truck driver. And for us it may be an afterthought too, whose cars and televisions are delivered in tens of thousands of coloured steel boxes, some of which are leaning at this very moment in gravity-defying towers at the stern of the stricken ship.
Yet change happens. It may start with cleaning a beach or holding an oiled bird. It may include raising a voice in favour of environmental protection over free-market hegemony.
An economy based on the imperative to consume and the myth of limitless growth does violence to the environment, and for too long we have been deaf to the cries of the Earth. But that is changing. Increasingly, New Zealanders’ sense of self, place and country is bound up with the health of the natural environment. This is the story we tell ourselves and the world: that our greenness and blueness—is more than a brand, it is a taonga, our common treasure.
I visit Maketu, famous for “honest-togoodness” pies, kiwifruit and kai moana. An oil boom lying across the mouth of the Maketu Estuary is bellied into a crescent by the outgoing tide. Gusty winds smoke fine sand across the dunes, and above the choppy surf terns swoop and hover, a cloud of sharp bills and eager eyes.
Birds are the only ones out fishing. Along the shore, “no public access” signs show a red-stained no-go zone that covers the entire estuary and nearby coast. For many Maori here and elsewhere in the Bay of Plenty,contaminated shellfish beds and loss of fishing access would have been a bitter blow.
On the hillside, a hand-painted sign speaks of community resolve: “Kia kaha, Maketu, let’s clean this mess the hell up!” Next to it, another sign: “Rena U suck”. One family has taken this message to heart and donated five tonnes of sphagnum peat moss to soak up the oil.
This is Arawa country. A roadside memorial honours the final resting place of the waka Te Arawa, ‘the shark’. The commemorative plaque names two ancestors: Tamatekapua, the navigator, and Ngatoroirangi, the tohunga. I look at the plaque, get into my car to drive away, then get out and have another look. That combination, navigator and tohunga, strikes me as oddly significant. One negotiated the seen world, the other negotiated the unseen world. A voyage on the waters of Tangaroa required both as officers of the watch.
Can we learn anything from that pairing, I wonder? Can Tamatekapua and Ngatoroirangi reach across the centuries from their world to ours?
The people of the Bay might look at the oil weeping from the glittering sand and consider the dual roles of those tattooed mariners, one addressing the safe passage of the vessel, the other weighing and mitigating the risks to his people and their environment. Those responsibilities—and the underlying separation of powers—may be timeless.