Fuel oil from container ship Rena is seen on Papamoa beach, near Tauranga, New Zealand.

Rena's captain appears in New Zealand court

The captain of a stricken container ship stuck on a reef off New Zealand has appeared in court as fear grows that the vessel may break up.

The 47,230-tonne ship Rena has been stranded on a reef 12 nautical miles off Tauranga on the east coast of New Zealand’s North Island since running aground a week ago. The front half of the 236-metre ship is wedged firmly on the reef with the stern over 90-metre deep water.

The captain, a 44-year old Philippine national, was remanded on bail without plea to a charge of "operating a vessel in a manner causing unnecessary danger or risk", which carries a maximum fine of NZ$10,000 or 12 months in prison.

Heavy swells and strong winds have pounded the vessel for two days, sending mostly empty containers tumbling off the ship, which is listing at about 18 degrees, into the heaving seas. Authorities said more than 30 containers have fallen off the ship, with some of them washed up on a small island, Motiti, about eight km from the ship, and others bobbing in the sea.

The ship was carrying 1,368 containers, 11 of which are said to have hazardous substances in them. Shipping using the port of Tauranga, which is the country's biggest export port, was being re-routed away from the containers.

Oil is scattered along 25 km of the district's long, golden beaches, which are a magnet for surfers. Nearby waters have an international reputation for big-game fishing. Several hundred people, including soldiers, were scraping the clumps of thick, toxic, fuel oil, some as large as dinner plates, into plastic bags and large bins.

New Zealand Prime Minister John Key said the ship's hull was splitting. "We have identified stress fractures on the boat so we can't rule out the risk of the ship breaking up," Key told reporters on a visit to the district.

Key said the New Zealand government would do whatever necessary to ensure the environment and beaches were cleaned up, and hold those responsible to account.

Booms have been placed over some harbour entrances to keep oil out of wetland and wildlife habitats. Hundreds of dead seabirds have been recovered and teams of naturalists have scrubbed and treated scores more for oil contamination.

"It has the potential to not only affect some of our most pristine coastal areas ... but also estuaries and already threatened marine habitats," said Auckland University marine biologist scientist, Barbara Bollard-Breen

The ship's owner, Daina Shipping, a unit of Greece's Costamare Inc and its salvage experts, are responsible for the ship's recovery, but any plan needs official approval.

A floating crane able to remove containers from the ship is on its way from Singapore, but will take at least two weeks to arrive.

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