Crew of Panama-flagged ship that entered restricted Great Barrier Reef area fined $65,000

By Kristen Gelineau, AP
Thursday, April 15, 2010

Crew fined for entering restricted reef area

SYDNEY — Australian authorities signaled their seriousness about protecting the Great Barrier Reef with a court issuing fines Friday for a ship that entered a restricted area a day after a coal carrier ran aground and tore a huge gash in the reef.

The South Korean master and two Vietnamese officers of the Panama-flagged MV Mimosa pleaded guilty in Townsville Magistrates Court to breaching the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Act on April 4. They were each fined 70,000 Australian dollars ($65,000).

The crew’s prosecution is a sign authorities are serious about stepping up protection of the reef after another vessel — the Shen Neng 1 — veered off course and slammed into a shoal on April 3. The crash left a two-mile (three-kilometer) scar on the reef, damaging the shoal so badly experts estimate it may need up to 20 years to heal.

The Shen Neng 1’s 47-year-old master, Jichang Wang, and 44-year-old chief officer, Xuegang Wang, were also arrested in connection with their carrier’s crash. Jichang Wang was charged with liability for a vessel causing damage in a marine park, an offense that carries a maximum 55,000 Australian dollar ($51,200) fine. Xuegang Wang was charged with being in charge of the vessel when it caused the damage, and faces up to three years in prison and a fine of up to AU$220,000.

Both men were granted bail after a brief appearance in Gladstone Magistrates Court in Queensland state Thursday, and Xuegang Wang was ordered to surrender his passport. The next hearing was scheduled for June 9, but the men are not required to appear. Neither has spoken about the crash or investigation of their actions.

“We hope the Australian side will handle this in a fair manner,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu said in Beijing.

Coral shredded the ship’s hull, causing it to leak 2-3 tons of fuel oil. Most of the oil was dispersed by a chemical spray and did little or no damage to the reef itself, but officials said they believe some washed ashore on the beach of a wildlife sanctuary this week.

On Thursday, the Australian Transport Safety Bureau released a preliminary report that said the master didn’t alert Australian authorities to the crash for an hour and a half. The gap in time — and whether it was reasonable — is just one factor the bureau will examine in its investigation.

The crash happened after the crew decided to take a shortcut, and failed to correct course as planned, the transport bureau said in its report. By the time they realized they had drifted into a dangerous area and tried to turn, it was too late — the ship was already shuddering as it slammed into Douglas Shoal.

The bureau said it will focus part of its investigation on whether fatigue played a role in the crash, and will examine the company’s work and rest policies.

The Great Barrier Reef is a World Heritage site because of its gleaming waters and environmental value as home to thousands of marine species. The Shen Neng’s accident occurred in the southern tip of the reef, which is not the main tourism hub.

Associated Press researcher Xi Yue contributed to this report from Beijing.

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