Maritime authorities in Australia have mounted an emergency salvation operation to prevent a stricken vessel from damaging the Great Barrier Reef.
The Chinese registered Shen Neng 1 is grounded on Douglas Shoals – well outside of established shipping lanes – with environmentalists fearing it could spill hundreds of tonnes of oil into the ocean should it break up.
Queensland officials have warned, however, the operation to salvage the vessel could take up to a month.
The bulk carrier is precariously balanced off the east coast of Great Keppel Island, with the crew remaining onboard in preparation for any potential refloating.
The Australian prime minister, Kevin Rudd, has branded the actions of the Chinese crew “outrageous”, and warned of potentially huge fines.
“Where I sit, it is outrageous to find any vessel this far off course, it seems, in the Great Barrier Reef,” said Mr Rudd during a visit to the coastal town of Rockhampton.
“The practical challenge is to deal with that situation now. The practical challenge then is to bring to account those who are responsible.”
Closer tracking of vessels moving through the region’s shipping channels is also being considered following the incident.
Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA) chairman, Leo Zussino, sought to reassure residents everything possible was being done.
“There’s no evidence of a threat to the Central Queensland coast at this point in time, and certainly, the professional salvors are on board and are waiting for the assessment which is looking quite promising.
“But certainly there’s a lot of work to be done to be able to determine the way forward to removing the vessel from the reef and getting it safely fixed up and on its way,” Mr Zussino added.
Authorities are likely to begin the “delicate” operation to remove hundreds of tonnes of oil and coal from the vessel in the next few days.
Local environmentalists have been quick to condemn the government following the incident.
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.
Environmentalists claim the route – utilising a short-cut through the supposedly protected Great Barrier Reef Marine Park – poses a danger to the delicate ecosystem , with the government turning a blind-eye to the problem.
Covering an area larger than the United Kingdom, the Great Barrier Reef is the world’s largest reef system, made up of more than 2,900 coral reefs and 900 islands scattered over 344,400sq km off the coast of Queensland in north-east Australia.
A UNESCO World Heritage Site, it is one of the most popular tourist attractions in the southern hemisphere.