As much as 350 tonnes of oil had escaped the ship this morning after it shifted in big seas overnight and crushed part of the reef it was stuck on.
It had been carrying around 1700 tonnes of fuel.
The ship had partially righted itself, and was now only listing by between 3 and 6 degrees, MNZ said.
Fears the ship would break up and its 2000 containers fall in to the sea were growing as bad weather continued.
A mayday call from the 24 crew to take them off the ship went up mid-morning, a Maritime New Zealand (MNZ) spokeswoman said.
“By issuing a distress call such as that it expedites the removal, so people come quickly to assist,” she said.
Navy vessels and helicopters helped take the crew off, and they were now on standby waiting to re-board the ship when the weather settled.
“At the moment they just want the vessel to settle again, and ensure that their own safety is not put at risk.”
MNZ stressed it was a “precautionary measure”. The ship was not breaking up, it said.
Graeme Hoete, a resident of Motiti Island which was only 7.5km from the Rena, said the sea was extremely rough. “It’s shocking,” he said.
A resumption of the operation to pump oil from the ship, halted after the bunker ship Awanui was damaged, was also further delayed by bad weather this morning.
The oil is continuing to wash up at nearby beaches, with two birds coated in oil found dead on Mt Maunganui beach this morning.
Congratulations to successive NZ governments who de-regulated the shipping industry which led to sub-standard vessels and average crews working in New Zealand waters. This is a prime example of the free market at work with little consideration for safety and protecting the environment that should both be non-negotiable items that are placed before profit.
Less than a year ago New Zealand reaped the terrible harvest of the deregulation of the mining industry with the needless deaths of 29 miners at Pike River Coal Mine, because safety was compromised for profit.