Wed, Apr 14, 2010 - Page 1 News List

Barrier Reef shoal may take 20 years to recover

PULVERIZED A 3km long, 250m wide section of the Great Barrier Reef was destroyed by a Chinese ship, with worries that chemicals would destroy local marine life


A coal carrier that ran aground and leaked 2.7 tonnes of oil on Australia’s Great Barrier Reef completely pulverized parts of a shoal and caused damage so severe it could take marine life 20 years to recover, the reef’s chief scientist said yesterday.

Initial assessments by the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority found the 230m Shen Neng 1 left a scar 3km long and up to 250m wide along the world’s largest coral reef, said scientist David Wachenfeld, who is coordinating the authority’s assessment of the ship’s impact.

“We were expecting some fairly severe damage to this location, and our observations to date confirm that expectation,” he said.

The Shen Neng 1 slammed into a shoal on April 3, and coral shredded part of its hull, causing the oil leak.

That oil was dispersed by chemical sprays and is believed to have caused little or no damage to the reef.

The vessel was successfully lifted off the coral reef on Monday after crews spent three days pumping heavy fuel oil from the ship to lighten it. Salvage crews later towed it to an anchorage area near Great Keppel Island, 38 nautical miles (70km) away.

Damage to the reef was particularly bad because the vessel did not stay in one place once it grounded, Wachenfeld said. Instead, tides and currents pushed it along the reef, crushing and smearing potentially toxic paint onto coral and plants, he said.

In some areas, “all marine life has been completely flattened and the structure of the shoal has been pulverized by the weight of the vessel,” Wachenfeld said.

It will be at least another week before the full extent of the damage is known, but the area’s recovery could take up to two decades, he said.

Perhaps most concerning to the scientists is the chemical makeup of the paint used on the ship’s hull, which divers have found spread across the vast majority of the impacted region.

Many oceangoing vessels are covered in what is known as “anti-fouling” paint, which prevents marine life from growing on their hulls and creating drag. Certain paints contain chemicals that prevent such growth, while others simply act as a barrier.

Scientists with the reef authority plan to analyze paint left by the Shen Neng 1 to see if it contains heavy metals. If it does, Wachenfeld said, it would not only kill the marine life currently on the shoal, but also prevent new life from colonizing there.

The Australian Federal Police, the Australian Maritime Safety Authority and the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority are investigating alleged breaches of the law connected with the accident.

The grounding forced a review of shipping regulations in the fragile area. Queensland state Premier Anna Bligh promised on Monday to sharply increase penalties on ships causing oil spills.

Bligh said the maximum penalty for corporations would increase from A$1.75 million (US$1.64 million) to A$10 million, and individuals would face fines of A$500,000 — up from A$350,000.

The proposed new penalties are the latest sign that authorities are serious about stepping up protection of the fragile reef.

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