Sydney – Oil from a huge Chinese ship which grounded in the Great Barrier Reef has hit a world-renowned nature sanctuary, officials said on Wednesday, raising fears for seabirds and baby turtles now hatching there.
Clean-up crews and environmental experts were flown in by helicopter to North West Island, a breeding site for hundreds of thousands of seabirds and turtles, where clumps of oil have fouled about 1km of beach.
The 230 metre Shen Neng 1 leaked about two tonnes of oil after blundering into the reef on April 3, angering officials who have promised stiff punishment. The giant coal-carrier was refloated and towed away on Monday.
“It hasn’t come ashore in large globules or carpets,” Patrick Quirk, general manager of Marine Safety Queensland, told public broadcaster ABC.
“Our advice from the rangers on the island is that it’s at the top of the tide line in patches, and that gives us some comfort.
“But we need to get our specialist beach clean-up experts and they’ll report to us immediately what is there and if needed, we’ll fly out more people to the island.”
Queensland’s state transport minister Rachel Nolan said initial reports described only a “very small amount” of oil. However, Environment Protection Minister Peter Garrett feared oil may also have hit other islands.
“I’m certainly very concerned that some of the neighbouring islands there, like Tryon Island, might also have also been contaminated,” he said.
Conservationists describe North West Island as a globally important nesting site for seabirds and green and loggerhead turtles, which are currently hatching and travelling down the beach.
Darren Kindleysides, director of the Australian Marine Conservation Society, said even small amounts of oil can affect wildlife.
“We’re not talking about a super tanker going aground and releasing tonnes and tonnes and tonnes of oil,” he said.
“But we are talking about oil reaching a coral key which is globally important for seabird breeding and the nesting of green and loggerhead turtles.
“Unfortunately this is the time of year we have turtle hatchlings going down the beach… so that is a real concern.”
Australian officials have expressed anger after the Shen Neng 1 blundered into part of the world heritage-listed reef at full speed, accusing the crew of taking an illegal route.
About two tonnes of oil spilled out of the giant ship when it rammed into Douglas Shoal, creating a 3km slick.
The vessel also carved a kilometres-long gouge in the delicate coral reef which experts say could take 20 years to recover.
Officials are probing claims ships ferrying Australia’s booming resources exports to Asia are taking short-cuts through the world’s biggest coral reef, which is already under pressure from rising sea temperatures and pollution.