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Anger in Australia mounts after ship grounds on Great Barrier Reef

The Chinese coal freighter Shen Neng 1 that grounded on the Great Barrier Reef has been moved to safety. But the incident has made the public aware that freighters routinely take illegal shortcuts through the reef, and politicians are calling for steeper fines and legal action to protect it.

By Carol HuangStaff writer / April 13, 2010

In this April 5 photo, oil leaks from the Chinese coal freighter Shen Neng 1 that rests aground on Douglas Shoals off the coast 70 miles east of Rockhampton, Australia.

Queensland Maritime Safety/AP

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The discovery Monday that a Chinese ship grounded in the Great Barrier Reef had caused greater damage than originally thought has ratcheted up anger in Australia.

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The furor over the Shen Neng 1 – which ran into the world’s largest stretch of coral reef 10 days ago while taking an illegal shortcut – has led to the discovery that a steady stream of cargo ships illegally cut through the reef's protected zone.

IN PICTURES: Disaster averted at the Great Barrier Reef

Fishermen near the Douglas Shoal off of Queensland, where the ship ran aground, told the Times of London they see at least one bulk carrier pass through each day. Australian Federal Police said it was “not unusual” for ships to cut through the reef.

The area has become known as a “coal highway” as countries like China buy more natural resources from Australia. The Shen Neng 1 was hauling 65,000 tons of coal.

The day after the Shen Neng 1 got caught in the reef another cargo ship, Mimosa, was caught entering a restricted zone without permission. Nor was it properly registered with the official tracking system.

Bad timing. It chugged in just as Australian authorities began broadcasting legal threats to all ships cutting through the Great Barrier Reef in response to the Shen Neng 1 accident. Three Mimosa crewmembers were arrested and, after appearing in court on Monday, released on bail.

“If we have any foreign vessel or any vessel violating the proper protection of the Great Barrier Reef, they should have the book thrown at them,” Prime Minister Kevin Rudd said.

Queensland Premier Anna Bligh called for a fivefold increase for corporations whose ships spill oil, to $10 million, and said she would introduce such legislation to Parliament this week. Individual fines would be raised to $500,000 from $350,000.

“This increase in penalties will send a message to the thousands of ship crews who pass through Queensland waters that nothing but the greatest attention to safety and care will be tolerated,” Ms. Bligh said.

Expensive spill

Certainly the Shen Neng 1’s grounding ranks high on the damage scale – and will require one of the biggest coral cleanup efforts in Australian history, Russell Reichelt, head of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, told the Australian Broadcasting Corp.

While a relatively scant 2 to 4 tons of oil spilled, more damage was discovered on Monday after the ship was towed out of the area and anchored near Great Keppel Island. The remaining 975 tons of fuel on the ship was pumped away before the move.

An initial inspection revealed that, after more a week of drifting through the Reef, the ship had left a half-mile-long gash in the reef. Anti-fouling paint covering the ship – which is used to prevent barnacles and other sea life from building up – is now poisoning nearby coral.

The full extent of the damage has yet to be seen, Queensland Transport Minister Rachel Nolan told Reuters. “Until we get divers down you can’t be totally certain how damaged this thing is underneath.”

The Great Barrier Reef holds immense ecological and tourism value. It houses a vast array of marine life including turtles, whales, and dolphins, and brings nearly 2 million tourists a year, according to official estimates.

As shipping increases, the authorities must adapt, Mr. Reichelt, the Reef park authority, said. "We're still having groundings. We have to do better."

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