WELLINGTON, New Zealand — An oil spill from a container ship stricken off New Zealand is now the country's "most significant maritime environmental disaster," a government minister said Tuesday.
Environment Minister Nick Smith issued the warning as the weather deteriorated, sending clumps of thick fuel oil on to nearby beaches.
The Liberian-flagged Rena has been stranded on a reef about 12 nautical miles off Tauranga on the east coast of the country's North Island since running aground on Wednesday.
As much as 385 of 1,879 tons of heavy fuel oil has already escaped and authorities have warned people off the beaches and told them not to eat seafood from the area.
Smith said oil poured out of a new puncture in the Rena at "fivefold" the rate it had in the days after the ship grounded on Astrolabe Reef, the New Zealand Herald reported.
"I'd like to acknowledge this event has come to a stage where it is New Zealand's most significant maritime environmental disaster," Smith told a news briefing in Tauranga, according to BBC News.
"It is my view that the tragic events we are seeing unfolding were absolutely inevitable from the point that the Rena ran onto the reef in the early hours of Wednesday morning," he added.
Long, golden beaches
The district is a popular holiday resort, with long, golden beaches renowned for surfing and nearby waters with an international reputation for big-game fishing.
Booms have been put over some harbor entrances to prevent oil from destroying wetland and wildlife habitats. So far fewer than a dozen seabirds have died and about the same number treated for oil contamination.
Maritime New Zealand said weather overnight had shifted the ship on the reef and continuing heavy swells and strengthening winds were making it too dangerous to stay on board.
"All personnel have now been taken off the vessel as a precautionary measure due to the conditions," the agency said in a statement.
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Swells of up to 12 feet and winds gusting up to 25 knots had moved the ship around on the reef, but also reduced its list to between three and six degrees from the previous 11 degrees.
"There has been more damage to the front part in the vessel, and additional flooding in the forward holds. However, this will to some degree help to settle Rena."
Refloating and salvage of the ship is the responsibility of the owner, Daina Shipping, a unit of Greece's Costamare Inc., and salvage experts, but any plan needs official approval.
The ship was en route to Tauranga, 200 km (120 miles) southeast of New Zealand's biggest city, Auckland, the country's biggest export port and a hub for transshipping cargo, to collect cargo before heading for Singapore.