Profile: Julian Fitter

1) What’s your involvement with Forest & Bird?

I’ve been a member for some time, part of the Te Puki branch. I’ve also written several articles for the magazine, and provided some photos. I thoroughly support Forest & Bird, I think they do a great job in keeping our government on its toes regarding our environmental issues.

"Boom and Wildlife Man" Julian Fitter

"Boom and Wildlife Man" Julian Fitter

2) How were you involved in the clean-up following the oil spill?

I was involved a clean-up operation organised through the local Whakaue Marae. Our main aim was to protect the Maketu estuary. My main task was helping setting up and taking down  booms. These were laid across the entrance to the estuary to prevent oil from getting in, as it would have been almost impossible to clean up from the surrounding mud flats and vegetation.

3) What did you find most challenging and/or rewarding about your role in the clean-up?

Something that was really frustrating was how unprepared certain organisations were. Our team didn’t receive equipment like booms until nearly a week after the Rena hit the reef. As this was the first marine disaster New Zealand has experienced, everyone was on a learning curve, but had we all been better prepared we could have saved a lot of hassle and cleaned up the beaches and surrounding areas much quicker.

It wasn’t all bad though. I found it really rewarding that this disaster brought the Maketu community together. Locals provided meals for volunteers at the Whakaue Marae, sometimes feeding up to 50 volunteers at once. They were brilliant, they had a roster set up and volunteers were taken care of throughout the entire clean-up operation. I also found working with certain other teams very rewarding. One team that worked particularly well was from Fulton Hogan. They used sieves to pick up oil from the beach, and had obviously been working together for some time. They had a great team work ethic and were really productive.  

4) What is your most vivid memory from the clean-up?

The fist image that really stuck with me was those great patches of oil on the beach, like big cowpats. Not a pleasant sight at all. But I also remember the wonderful enthusiasm of the volunteers, all dressed in white boiler suits, coming down to the beach, eager to help clean up.

5) How much work do you think is needed to return the environment back to its original state (pre-spill)?

Surprisingly little. The beaches are generally ok now, and the local kaimoana is safe to eat again. We were extremely lucky. Even with all the problems that occurred during the clean-up, it could have been much, much worse. Our environment is amazingly resilient, and it does work to clean itself. We were lucky to have such committed volunteers who managed to clean up as much oil as they did.

6) Do you have any advice for New Zealanders in regard to protecting our wildlife from any further environmental disasters?

The most important thing is that we, as a country, learn from this experience. We now know what is required, should a disaster like this happen again. I think a fully independent inquiry is required into the handling of the disaster and the clean-up, which will better prepare us in the future.

One thing that is absolutely key to preventing further spills is imposing routing points around the coast. Ships should have to travel a certain distance away from the shore. Not much harm can come to a ship in deep water, and travelling too close to the shore is not just irresponsible, but potentially very expensive, both financially and environmentally.