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The Great Barrier Reef scandal

Ellen Connolly

Jon Henley

Readinch

A world heritage site faced disaster after a Chinese ship ran aground off Australia’s coast. Ellen Connolly and Jon Henley ask why giant coal carriers are still using the fragile area as a short cut.

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On 11 June 1770, six weeks or so after becoming the first European to make landfall on the east coast of Australia, Lieutenant James Cook unexpectedly ran aground. His ship, the Endeavour, had struck a reef now known as the Endeavour Reef, within a manifestly far bigger reef system, nearly 40 kilometres from shore. Only the urgent jettisoning of 50 tonnes of stores and equipment (including all but four of the ship’s guns), a delicate operation known as fothering (in which an old sail was drawn under the hull, effectively plugging the hole), Cook’s expert seamanship and a great deal of hard pumping saved the vessel and her crew.

It would be another 30-odd years before the great English explorer and cartographer Matthew Flinders, having circumnavigated the entirety of Terra Australis Incognita, the Unknown Southern Land, gave the vast reef system its name. But despite his astonishing success in charting a safe passage through its treacherous waters, mainly by the expedient of sending small boats ahead to sound the depths, Flinders himself was later stranded on it while heading home for England in 1803.

For nearly 250 years, the Great Barrier Reef has been a hazard to shipping. It is the world's largest reef system, made up of more than 2,900 coral reefs and 900 islands scattered over 344,400 square kilometres off the coast of Queensland in north-east Australia. Covering an area bigger than the United Kingdom, it is also a priceless and unimaginably fragile world heritage site, home to 30 species of whales, dolphins and porpoises; six species of sea turtles; 125 species of shark, stingray and skate; 5,000 species of mollusc; nine species of seahorse; 215 species of birds; 17 species of sea snake; 2,195 known plant species and more than 1,500 species of fish.

And it is still a hazard to shipping. In recent years, its pristine waters, in theory protected by the statutes of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park, have become known as the “coal highway”, a busy thoroughfare for foreign-owned bulk carriers bound for Asia. Laden with coal and fuel oil from Australia, thousands of ships -- such as the Chinese-owned Shen Neng 1, which ran aground off the country’s eastern seaboard on April 3 -- continue to jeopardise the largest marine conservation site in the world. As salvage teams worked to prevent disaster, environmentalists were not slow to accuse the government of turning a blind eye to the problem.

“This is the $60-billion-a-year, largely foreign-owned coal industry that is making a coal highway out of the Great Barrier Reef,” said Bob Brown, leader of the Australian Greens party. “There needs to be a radical overview of this huge coal-export industry, whether these ships need to use the reef at all, and what the alternatives are,” he said. Local fishermen have dubbed it the “reef rat run”, saying ships routinely take short cuts to save time and money on their voyage to China.

It was this so-called short cut, near the Douglas Shoal, off Rockhampton, that is believed to have caused the Shen Neng 1 accident. According to reports, the 230-metre-long ship, carrying 975 tonnes of heavy fuel oil and 65,000 tonnes of coal, was travelling at full speed when it hit a sandbank in a protected part of the Great Barrier Reef. Its fuel tank ruptured, causing a three-kilometre-long oil slick.

[After the vessel was refloated on April 12, the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority’s senior scientist, David Wachenfeld, said the ship had gouged a channel about three kilometres long in the reef.]

The Queensland premier, Anna Bligh, has said the ship’s owner, Shenzhen Energy – which allegedly has been involved in three major international incidents in four years – could face a fine of up to one million Australian dollars (nearly US$930,000) for straying from a shipping lane that is currently used by some 6,000 cargo vessels each year.

The stricken ship was travelling to China from Gladstone, a port playing a growing role in the booming export trade of Australia’s natural resources to Asia. The incident follows a similar accident in March last year when 60 kilometres of Queensland’s south-east coast were declared a disaster area after 42 tonnes of oil spilled into the ocean from the MV Pacific Adventurer during a cyclone.

Conservationists say the fact that there is no legal requirement to have marine pilots on board ships in the area, to guide them safely through the 2,500-kilometre reef system, puts it in grave danger. “The current lack of safeguards around shipping in the Great Barrier Reef is akin to playing Russian roulette with one of the world’s most treasured natural icons,” says Gilly Llewellyn, the conservation director of WWF Australia, who called for ships to be piloted. She also wants improved monitoring systems so authorities know where large vessels are situated on the reef at all times.

The Australasian Marine Pilots Institute (AMPI), the organising body for Australia’s marine pilots, says the grounding of the Shen Neng 1 should focus attention on the lack of protection Australia’s maritime regulations afford the reef. An Australian maritime law expert, Peter Glover, says public opinion and government legislative reaction to marine pollution by commercial shipping in the Great Barrier Reef have got noticeably tougher since 1996, when the Panamanian-flagged vessel Peacock, en route from Singapore to New Zealand via the inner route of the Great Barrier Reef, ran aground on Piper Reef. The ship was carrying approximately 605 tonnes of bunker heavy fuel oil, and its owners were not even prosecuted.

Following the grounding of the 22,000-tonne Malaysian-flagged container vessel Bunga Teratai Satu on Sudbury Reef in 2001, legislative changes were introduced to allow both state and Commonwealth authorities to prosecute those who pollute in the waters surrounding the reef.

Those changes were put to the test almost immediately in the wake of another potentially catastrophic grounding the following year, of the Greek-flagged bulk carrier Doric Chariot. But Peter Glover believes it still “remains to be seen … how effective legislative changes are in addressing the prosecution of individuals responsible for causing damage” in the reef.

Inspecting the scene from the air, Australia’s prime minister, Kevin Rudd, expressed concern that the Shen Neng 1, balancing precariously in the crystal-clear waters, had strayed so far from official shipping lanes. “From where I see it, it is outrageous that any vessel could find itself 12 kilometres off-course, it seems, in the Great Barrier Reef,” Rudd told reporters in tropical Queensland, where the reef park is a major tourist draw. He pledged an overhaul of measures to protect the Great Barrier Reef from any future environmental disasters. “There is no greater natural asset for Australia than the Great Barrier Reef,” he said.

But maritime traffic through the Great Barrier Reef is projected only to increase, with contracts reportedly signed for the export of US$60 billion worth of liquefied natural gas from coal seams as shrinking resources spur energy companies to turn to unconventional gas reserves to feed Asian demand. Work is under way to expand the port of Gladstone in Queensland to lift capacity by up to 25 million tonnes a year, driven by surging demand from Japan, South Korea, India and China.

Local fishermen fear any increase in traffic will put Australia’s most precious environmental asset at further risk. “We see ships through there every day,” Graham Scott, who has been fishing and chartering boats on the reef for 40 years, told the Sydney Morning Herald. “We see many, many boats within 15 miles [24 kilometres] of that spot [where the Shen Neng 1 grounded]. One or two boats a day, every time we’re out. We’ve assumed in the past that they’re not coal boats, because what would a coal boat be doing there?”


www.guardian.co.uk/

Copyright Guardian News and Media Limited 2010

 

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澳大利亚当局的疏忽

船的目的地,以及它的拥有人的国籍与大堡礁生态系统无关。
一个根本原因在这里已经被喧宾夺主,那就是澳大利亚当局已经疏忽关注该地区的航运。
惩罚性制裁以及当局提高警觉是最基本的。应当禁止船舶通过堡礁 - 额外的运输费用是微不足道的。
对于出口目的地(包括中国)的“敏感”不能算做考虑因素。
澳大利亚(和其他)煤炭出口国该知道,这样做会导致气候变化。

Negligence by the Australian authorities

The destination of the ship and the nationality of its owner are irrelevant to the ecosystem with the Great Barrier Reef.

A fundamental reason why it has become a rat run is that the Australian authorities have been negligent concerning shipping in the region.

Punitive sanctions and much greater vigilance by the authorities are essential. Shipping should be prohibited from going through the reef - the additional costs of transportation are trivial.

"Sensitivities" in export destinations (including China) should not be taken into consideration.

Australia and other nations who export coal must know that doing so will contribute to climate change.


危机公关

这则新闻在国际上反响很大,在中国国内却鲜有报道。

看了中外对话下一篇的大堡礁图片幻灯,文章介绍了澳大利已最新的保护措施。显然,这种事件已经被定性成了人为的错误,那么“肇事人”就是被指责和惩罚的主体。但肇事人是不是就能被简单认定为船长或船只所有者呢?

无论对事故船只的所有方,还是澳大利亚政府,还是中国政府来说,这都是一次失败的危机公关。受损的不仅是那片美轮美奂的海域和珊瑚礁,也是企业和政府的形象,更是对人类难以弥补的伤害。

Crisis PR

The news is well-responded internationally, but rare reported in China.

I've seen the slideshow of the Great Barrier Reef in the next article which introduces the latest protection plans in Austrialia. Apparently since this type of accident has been considered as human errors, it is the "culprit" that should be blamed and punished. But can the "culprit" be simply interpreted as the captain or the ship owner?

It was a failed crisis PR to the owner of the ship, the Austrialian government and the Chinese government. Not only the stunning waters and coral reefs were damaged, the images of the enterprise and government were also undermined. It was an irreparable harm to human being.


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