UPDATED: Coal-Carrying Ship Wrecked on Barrier Reef Will Take Weeks to Remove

great barrier reef image

Photo by eutrophication&hypoxia; via Flickr CC

Saturday morning, a coal-carrying ship - the Chinese Shen Neng 1 - ran around on Douglas Shoals in the Great Barrier Reef. It is (or at least was) a pristine habitat and favorite fishing spot. Not just that, but the shoals are also a protected part of the reef where shipping is restricted by environmental law. But now, the contents of the ship are leaking oil into the habitat, and the salvage team says it could take several weeks to remove the ship from the reef. Meanwhile, authorities are worried that an oil spill will do damage to the Great Barrier Reef, which is already struggling to stay healthy.

UPDATE: The Shen Neng 1 captain seemed to have been trying to take a short cut, bringing the ship illegally into the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park. In order to avoid further spread of oil or risk a major spill should the ship break apart, Earth Times reports that authorities will place booms around the ship as 950 tons of heavy fuel is pumped out of the ship. Less than 4 tons has leaked, causing a 3 kilometer oil slick. The teams will try to refloat the ship with the coal still onboard, if possible, however, low tides for the next two weeks could delay efforts to remove the ship from the reef. According to PhysOrg, the 755 foot carrier Shen Neng 1 is currently hard aground on the Great Barrier Reef near Great Keppel Island tourist resort. It was carrying 72,000 U.S. tons of coal to China when it hit the reef while going full speak outside the shipping lane.

Now, the salvage team says there are concerns that an oil spill could put the Great Barrier reef - a World Heritage site - in danger. The ship has about 1,000 tons of heavy fuel oil aboard; experts are worried this is what could leak should the ship break apart as it rocks around on the reef before the teams can stabilize it. But it could take weeks to remove it from the reef. Meanwhile, there's an oil slick stretching more than 2 miles that authorities are trying to break up.

State Premier Anna Bligh said "It's in such a delicate part of the reef and the ship is in such a badly damaged state, managing this process will require all the specialist expertise we can bring to bear."

It's not an easy task, and the ship's owner could pay with a fine of up to $1 million AUD. The ship was about 15 nautical miles off course in Commonwealth waters. And now it's caused the second major oil spill in Queensland in just over a year, according to Perth Now

There's a reason why there's shipping lanes. "This is a very delicate part of one of the most precious marine environments on earth and there are safe authorized shipping channels and that's where this ship should have been." Bligh said.

Coral reefs are considered the life support of the oceans, and they're having a hard time staying healthy due to ocean acidification stemming from carbon emissions, as well as warming temperatures. Any added stress such as this event is certainly dangerous. Greens Senate candidate Larissa Waters said marine pilots to help guide ships as they pass by delicate ecosystems such as this should be compulsory. "The cost of engaging a marine pilot for the length of the reef is a mere $8,000-$10,000 according to the Australian Maritime Safety Authority. Cutting costs on this while risking our multibillion-dollar reef tourism industry is unforgivable." Not to mention risking the health of important sea life.

We'll keep you updated as we find out more about the status of the ship's removal from the reef.

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More on Coral Reefs
Oceans of Change: Protecting the Planet's Life Support System
5 Ways to Value a Coral Reef
Underwater Museum to Protect Coral Reefs in Mexico

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