THE captain and watch officer of the Chinese ship blamed for causing unprecedented damage to a coral shoal on the Great Barrier Reef will face court today on federal charges that attract heavy fines and jail.
Australian Federal Police arrested the two Chinese nationals yesterday, as clean-up crews moved to contain oil from the holed bulk carrier Shen Neng 1 that had washed on to the second-largest coral cay on the reef.
The 47-year-old master of the coal carrier and his first mate, 44, who are alleged to have been in control of the vessel when it slammed into Douglas Shoal on April 3, were held in custody last night before their appearance today in court in Gladstone.
A statement by the AFP yesterday backed The Australian's reporting last week that the ship ran aground after leaving Gladstone and steaming through a designated turning point, possibly while the watch officer was not fully alert.
The Shen Neng 1 was refloated on Monday night, but not before it had gouged a 3km-long furrow in the reef about 70km off Gladstone, smearing the coral with anti-fouling paint from the hull.
The damage to the coral was described by Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority chief scientist David Wachenfeld as the worst known to have been caused by a ship grounding.
The charges followed a joint investigation by the AFP and Australian Maritime Safety Authority.
"It will be alleged in court that the men were the master and chief officer-on-watch of the vessel that caused damage to the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park," the AFP said yesterday.
"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 captain has been charged with having liability for a vessel that caused damage in a marine park, an offence carrying a fine of $55,000.
The officer-on-watch has been charged with being in charge of a vessel when it caused damage to the marine park, an offence that carries a maximum penalty of three years' imprisonment and a $220,000 fine.
Conventional shipping practice is that the first mate takes command of the ship between 4pm and 8pm. The vessel hit the reef at 5.10pm on April 3.
Unlike the Queensland coal ports of Dalrymple Bay and Abbot Point, Gladstone does not have compulsory use of pilots to navigate tankers through the reef, or electronic surveillance of vessels in Australian waters.
The federal government is set to extend the electronic surveillance - possibly as early as today - although it will stop short of demanding that all foreign coal ships use pilots to get them in and out of the Great Barrier Reef.
Under a system of electronic surveillance, a ship straying outside shipping channels is immediately contacted by authorities and sent back to those channels.
Bad weather on the reef curtailed further diving inspections yesterday of both the damaged reef as well as the ship, but a statement from Maritime Services Queensland said that "inspections by divers showed substantial damage to the bottom hull surrounding the engine room at the back of the ship".
Several small islands around the grounding site were yesterday checked for oil spills after small oil balls were found on North West Island, a nesting spot for seabirds and turtles.
Queensland Transport Minister Rachel Nolan said an aerial inspection of North West Island showed the spill was isolated.
"Flights over the island this morning could not detect any further oil in the water," she said yesterday.
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at 8:20 AM Posted by Oceanic Defense