Friday, April 2, 2010

Chinese Coal Ship Rams Great Barrier Reef

The 700-plus-foot vessel leaked oil into the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park near Great Keppel Island off the east coast of Queensland state. (Australian Maritime Safety Authority / April 4, 2010) Photo courtesy: Los Angeles Times

Easter Sunday, one of most sacred of all religious holidays found a Chinese-owned bulk coal carrier rammed into one of the most environmentally-sensitive coral reefs in the world. The Shen Neng 1 had run full speed into the Great Barrier Reef near Australia on Saturday, April 3, 2010. Australian officials are now racing to try to prevent as much of the cargo from escaping into surrounding waters as possible.

The Great Barrier Reef is one of the wonders of the natural world and was selected as World Heritage Site in 1981. Peter Garrett, Environmental Protection Minister, says the Australian government is extremely concerned about the effect an oil spill would have on the reef.

Environmentalists are horrified at the possible damage the accident might cause to the ecosystem. This is no small ecosystem, it is more than 1,200 miles long and comprises more than 3,000 individual reefs, cays and islands, providing a habitat for countless sea species. Coral reefs are an incredibly rich source of marine species. While coral reefs cover slightly less than 1% of the oceans, they are home to approximately 25% of all identified marine species; and, the Great Barrier Reef is the largest coral reef in the world.

The Great Barrier Reef is like any other coral reef in that it is built of small, colonial animals that grow one on top of the other building on the dead shells of each other. These skeletons of calcium carbonate fuse together into a rock-like formation that can cut through the hull of any ship like a hot knife through butter.

The real damage is not only what has been done to the reef; but, the potential damage the roughly 300,000 gallons of heavy fuel oil it carries will do to the environment and marine species it coats. The damage to the reef will take decades, if not centuries, to repair; as, coral is notoriously slow growing.

Shipping companies still bear the lions' share of the guilt when it comes to environmental disasters like this even if they have never run aground or spilled one drop of their fuel into the ocean. Why?

Shipping companies (and the powers that run them) have turned a blind eye to the type of fuel used in their ships. These companies favour (and use) a low-grade fuel that is cheap. However, it is also incredibly viscous (thick and sludgy) and needs to be heated before being injected into the engines. This alone should be a red flag AND a warning bell.

The gooey texture of the sludge they use for fuel makes this class of fuel an ecological and environmental nightmare if it escapes into the ocean. It coats birds, fish, and other wildlife causing almost certain death. It is difficult to clean up; and, therefore washes onto corals and beaches to be held for decades before the area finally returns to pre-spill status.

Great Keppel Island, about 340 miles north of Brisbane,is a major tourist destination on the Great Barrier Reef and has provided Australia with a source of both national pride and tourist dollars. The Shen Neng 1 has floundered about nine miles outside of a shipping lane. There appears to be an oil leak that has travelled into the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park near Keppel Island.

Despite all the measures the government has taken in recent decades to protect this national natural treasure, the reef has suffered significant decline from overfishing, fertilizer runoff from agriculture, and coral bleaching from hotter water than usual associated with global warming.

Marine ecologists often talk about oil spills as the tipping point that can push coral reefs or other undersea areas past the point from which they can recover; particularly, if their resilience has been weakened by other chronic stresses.

"Climate change is a problem for virtually all coral reefs, and fishing has had some problem there," said Ben Halpern, a marine ecologist at UC Santa Barbara. "If you add into that a major oil spill, it tends to push the system past the tipping point."

What happens beyond that point, Halpern said, is the subject of much study. What's known is that corals tend to die and the reefs become overgrown with invasive algae. Then the fish and other marine life that rely on a living reef can no longer survive.

"This is a serious situation and we've mobilized air, sea and land resources in response," Queensland Premier Anna Bligh said.

"The situation remains serious as the extent of the damage means that there is a very real risk that the vessel may break apart. Every effort is now being made to limit the impact of this incident."

What hasn't been mentioned so far in this blog is that the Shen Neng 1 was in a restricted zone of the park. The impact sliced open the fuel tanks prompting Australian officials to activate a national oil spill response plant.

The Australian Transport Safety Bureau will be conducting a full investigation of how the incident occurred and why the Shen Neng 1 was in a restricted zone. The carrier ran aground on a shoal and is not expected to be moved without salvage assistance.

Capricorn Conservation Council, a national environmental group, said in a release that it was "horrified that a Chinese coal carrier has run aground near Great Keppel Island."

The group called for a marine pilot to be required for all vessels operating in the area.

"We can be certain that this is a sign of things to come," spokesman Ian Herbert said.

"Who knows what damage will be done to our local coral reefs and marine animals from the oil spill from the ship. We are outraged that no marine pilot is required on ships between Gladstone and Cairns. This will increase the likelihood of similar events."

Via Care2 and Los Angeles Times

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