Stern scrape from the Shen Neng 1 / photograph courtesy of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority
About a week ago, the Shen Neng 1, a Chinese-owned freighter, ran aground on Australia's Great Barrier Reef and started leaking fuel. The four tons of oil that spilled from the ship created a two-mile slick over the reef. Australian officials were successful in refloating the ship, and the good news is that they were able to do it without spilling any additional oil. Unfortunately, the ship left behind a two-mile scar in the reef.
Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority (GBRMPA) chief scientist David Wachenfeld fears it could take 20 years for the reef to recover.The recovery time could be longer because the hull's anti-fouling paint, meant to discourage marine organisms from growing on ships, scraped off onto the reef.
"This is by far the largest ship grounding scar we have seen on the Great Barrier Reef to date," he said.
"This vessel did not make an impact in one place and rest there and then was pulled off.
"This scar is more in the region of 3km long and up to 250 metres wide."
"An optimistic estimate would be, if there were no chemical contamination at this site, that it would take (the reef) 10 to 20 years to recover," Dr Wachenfeld said.The image at the top of the post shows a portion of the scarring; you can see more images of it here. Marine scientists are still exploring the damage, and its full extent may not be known for some time. Effects of oil spills can linger in an ecosystem long after the ship and its visible oil slick is removed. For example, residual petrochemicals are still detectable in the Harlequin Ducks of Prince William Sound, more than 20 years after the Exxon Valdez disaster. That is why it is so disturbing to see an incident like this happen in such a globally important biodiversity hotspot.
"That paint is quite likely to have heavy metals in it.
"That would really put a much longer timeframe on recovery because that paint would be stopping any plants and animals from recolonising."
As if the scar were not enough, some of the spilled oil is washing up on a nature sanctuary.
Conservationists describe North West Island as a globally important nesting site for seabirds and green and loggerhead turtles, which are currently hatching and travelling down the beach.Australian leaders have expressed outrage at the incident since the ship first ran aground. Yesterday, police arrested two of the crew members.
Darren Kindleysides, director of the Australian Marine Conservation Society, said even small amounts of oil can affect wildlife.
"We're not talking about a supertanker going aground and releasing tonnes and tonnes and tonnes of oil," he said.
"But we are talking about oil reaching a coral cay which is globally important for seabird breeding and the nesting of green and loggerhead turtles.
"Unfortunately this is the time of year we have turtle hatchlings going down the beach... so that is a real concern."
The Australian Federal Police said they had arrested the ship's master and chief officer-on-watch and that the two Chinese men will appear in court in Queensland state on Thursday.The company that owns the ship, Shenzhen Energy Group, could face additional fines and will have to pay for cleanup costs.
"Investigations showed that the Shen Neng 1 failed to turn at a waypoint required by the intended course of the ship. A waypoint is a location at which a ship is to alter course," the federal police said in a statement.
The 44-year-old crewman in charge of the watch faces a maximum three years jail and/or a A$220,000 ($205,000) fine. The 47-year-old master faces a A$55,000 fine.
In other ocean news, DNA testing found that whale meat caught by Japanese whalers was served in restaurants in South Korea and the United States. Japan permits whaling under the guise of scientific research and allows the meat to be sold as food. However, sale of whale meat is illegal in both the United States and South Korea. Sei whale meat sold in a Los Angeles restaurant and fin whale meat sold in a Seoul restaurant both matched similar products sold in Japan. Minke whales caught in Japanese hunts have also been linked to international trade. The findings may increase international pressure to tighten restrictions on hunting protected whale species.