The Great Barrier Reef scandal

A world heritage site faced disaster after a Chinese ship ran aground off Australia’s coast. Ellen Connolly and Jon Henley ask why giant coal carriers are still using the fragile area as a short cut.

On 11 June 1770, six weeks or so after becoming the first European to make landfall on the east coast of Australia, Lieutenant James Cook unexpectedly ran aground. His ship, the Endeavour, had struck a reef now known as the Endeavour Reef, within a manifestly far bigger reef system, nearly 40 kilometres from shore. Only the urgent jettisoning of 50 tonnes of stores and equipment (including all but four of the ship’s guns), a delicate operation known as fothering (in which an old sail was drawn under the hull, effectively plugging the hole), Cook’s expert seamanship and a great deal of hard pumping saved the vessel and her crew.

It would be another 30-odd years before the great English explorer and cartographer Matthew Flinders, having circumnavigated the entirety of Terra Australis Incognita, the Unknown Southern Land, gave the vast reef system its name. But despite his astonishing success in charting a safe passage through its treacherous waters, mainly by the expedient of sending small boats ahead to sound the depths, Flinders himself was later stranded on it while heading home for England in 1803.

For nearly 250 years, the Great Barrier Reef has been a hazard to shipping. It is the world’s largest reef system, made up of more than 2,900 coral reefs and 900 islands scattered over 344,400 square kilometres off the coast of Queensland in north-east Australia. Covering an area bigger than the United Kingdom, it is also a priceless and unimaginably fragile world heritage site, home to 30 species of whales, dolphins and porpoises; six species of sea turtles; 125 species of shark, stingray and skate; 5,000 species of mollusc; nine species of seahorse; 215 species of birds; 17 species of sea snake; 2,195 known plant species and more than 1,500 species of fish.

And it is still a hazard to shipping. In recent years, its pristine waters, in theory protected by the statutes of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park, have become known as the “coal highway”, a busy thoroughfare for foreign-owned bulk carriers bound for Asia. Laden with coal and fuel oil from Australia, thousands of ships — such as the Chinese-owned Shen Neng 1, which ran aground off the country’s eastern seaboard on April 3 — continue to jeopardise the largest marine conservation site in the world. As salvage teams worked to prevent disaster, environmentalists were not slow to accuse the government of turning a blind eye to the problem.

“This is the $60-billion-a-year, largely foreign-owned coal industry that is making a coal highway out of the Great Barrier Reef,” said Bob Brown, leader of the Australian Greens party. “There needs to be a radical overview of this huge coal-export industry, whether these ships need to use the reef at all, and what the alternatives are,” he said. Local fishermen have dubbed it the “reef rat run”, saying ships routinely take short cuts to save time and money on their voyage to China.

It was this so-called short cut, near the Douglas Shoal, off Rockhampton, that is believed to have caused the Shen Neng 1 accident. According to reports, the 230-metre-long ship, carrying 975 tonnes of heavy fuel oil and 65,000 tonnes of coal, was travelling at full speed when it hit a sandbank in a protected part of the Great Barrier Reef. Its fuel tank ruptured, causing a three-kilometre-long oil slick.

[After the vessel was refloated on April 12, the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority’s senior scientist, David Wachenfeld, said the ship had gouged a channel about three kilometres long in the reef.]

The Queensland premier, Anna Bligh, has said the ship’s owner, Shenzhen Energy – which allegedly has been involved in three major international incidents in four years – could face a fine of up to one million Australian dollars (nearly US$930,000) for straying from a shipping lane that is currently used by some 6,000 cargo vessels each year.

The stricken ship was travelling to China from Gladstone, a port playing a growing role in the booming export trade of Australia’s natural resources to Asia. The incident follows a similar accident in March last year when 60 kilometres of Queensland’s south-east coast were declared a disaster area after 42 tonnes of oil spilled into the ocean from the MV Pacific Adventurer during a cyclone.

Conservationists say the fact that there is no legal requirement to have marine pilots on board ships in the area, to guide them safely through the 2,500-kilometre reef system, puts it in grave danger. “The current lack of safeguards around shipping in the Great Barrier Reef is akin to playing Russian roulette with one of the world’s most treasured natural icons,” says Gilly Llewellyn, the conservation director of WWF Australia, who called for ships to be piloted. She also wants improved monitoring systems so authorities know where large vessels are situated on the reef at all times.

The Australasian Marine Pilots Institute (AMPI), the organising body for Australia’s marine pilots, says the grounding of the Shen Neng 1 should focus attention on the lack of protection Australia’s maritime regulations afford the reef. An Australian maritime law expert, Peter Glover, says public opinion and government legislative reaction to marine pollution by commercial shipping in the Great Barrier Reef have got noticeably tougher since 1996, when the Panamanian-flagged vessel Peacock, en route from Singapore to New Zealand via the inner route of the Great Barrier Reef, ran aground on Piper Reef. The ship was carrying approximately 605 tonnes of bunker heavy fuel oil, and its owners were not even prosecuted.

Following the grounding of the 22,000-tonne Malaysian-flagged container vessel Bunga Teratai Satu on Sudbury Reef in 2001, legislative changes were introduced to allow both state and Commonwealth authorities to prosecute those who pollute in the waters surrounding the reef.

Those changes were put to the test almost immediately in the wake of another potentially catastrophic grounding the following year, of the Greek-flagged bulk carrier Doric Chariot. But Peter Glover believes it still “remains to be seen … how effective legislative changes are in addressing the prosecution of individuals responsible for causing damage” in the reef.

Inspecting the scene from the air, Australia’s prime minister, Kevin Rudd, expressed concern that the Shen Neng 1, balancing precariously in the crystal-clear waters, had strayed so far from official shipping lanes. “From where I see it, it is outrageous that any vessel could find itself 12 kilometres off-course, it seems, in the Great Barrier Reef,” Rudd told reporters in tropical Queensland, where the reef park is a major tourist draw. He pledged an overhaul of measures to protect the Great Barrier Reef from any future environmental disasters. “There is no greater natural asset for Australia than the Great Barrier Reef,” he said.

But maritime traffic through the Great Barrier Reef is projected only to increase, with contracts reportedly signed for the export of US$60 billion worth of liquefied natural gas from coal seams as shrinking resources spur energy companies to turn to unconventional gas reserves to feed Asian demand. Work is under way to expand the port of Gladstone in Queensland to lift capacity by up to 25 million tonnes a year, driven by surging demand from Japan, South Korea, India and China.

Local fishermen fear any increase in traffic will put Australia’s most precious environmental asset at further risk. “We see ships through there every day,” Graham Scott, who has been fishing and chartering boats on the reef for 40 years, told the Sydney Morning Herald. “We see many, many boats within 15 miles [24 kilometres] of that spot [where the Shen Neng 1 grounded]. One or two boats a day, every time we’re out. We’ve assumed in the past that they’re not coal boats, because what would a coal boat be doing there?”

Copyright Guardian News and Media Limited 2010