Two New Zealand scientists taking expertise from Rena oil spill to Rennell Island

Two New Zealand scientists are taking their expertise from working on the Rena oil spill in Tauranga to the Solomon Islands.

They're preparing to head there to gather evidence of the environmental and social damage from the oil spill on Rennell Island - data that could be used to help prosecute the vessel's owner.

Part of Dr Phil Ross' assignment on Rennell Island will be to slice open shellfish to test for hydrocarbons. It's where the Solomon Trader hit a coral reef and spilled 100 tonnes of oil.

"Crayfish, clams, fish. Collecting data to be able to tell them is it safe to eat that seafood," said Dr Ross, a Waikato University marine ecologist.

But he's also going to be investigating another more serious - but less obvious threat.

Anti-fouling paint called "TBT" was found in slabs of the Rena's hull in the aftermath of the 2011 disaster - a substance so toxic it can alter the anatomy of some marine life.

"Particularly a species of snail, the female snails grew penises, and then the whole population would be infertile because they just couldn't reproduce & would disappear from the environment," said Dr Ross.

He's concerned tiny granules could be present off Rennell as well.

The kelp forests around the Rena wreck have recovered, but Dr Ross says the physical damage to the sensitive coral reefs off Rennell Island could be irreversible.

"They may never recover, or if they do, it's going to take a long time."

Sarah Lockwood, Toi Ohomai Institute of Technology social scientist, will be examining another matter at the island - the social impact on locals.

"The people in Rennell are really vulnerable in this case because they are completely isolated from resources, supplies, help," she said.

Lockwood says a crisis like an oil spill can have long-term implications for families. She will be questioning how it may change their cultural practises and how it may change the stress on the family units in the communities.

The scientists will also be training locals. But it's a rugged, partly underwater journey in a remote location.

The expedition will include three weeks camping on the island's shores. The Kiwis will be joined by an expert from Brisbane.


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