SAFETY | No Reef pilot, no Reef passage

Andrew Jeremijenko – LLOYD’S LIST

THE Chinese coal ship Shen Neng 1 ran aground on Douglas Shoal on April 3. If ships passing through the Great Barrier Reef were required to have a compulsory pilot for a cost of less than $10,000 this accident could have been prevented.

The dangers of navigating the Great Barrier Reef are obvious, with more than 1,600 known shipwrecks. Those dangers remain even with improved navigation technology. In the last 25 years, there have been more than 50 major shipping incidents.

The Great Barrier Reef World Heritage area is bigger than the UK, the Netherlands and Switzerland combined (348,000 sq km). It is listed for protection due to its exceptional natural beauty and significant natural habitats for biological diversity. It is the largest coral reef ecosystem on the planet. The Great Barrier Reef Outlook Report 2009 describes threats including global warming, fishing, coastal development and shipping.

The Shen Neng 1 grounding scar stretches over 3 km of the Douglas shoal. Corals under the scar have been pulverised and compacted and adjacent corals toppled over and pushed into ridges.

Over a tonne of toxic Tributyltin, a biocide used to stop marine animals growing on ships, has been scraped off the hull and will cause long-term effects. Four tonnes of oil was spilt and despite dispersant use, itself a hazardous chemical, some oil has washed up on North West island, a turtle and bird haven. The effect could have been much worse if the ship had broken up and released nearly 60,000 tonnes of coal and 1,000 tonnes of oil on the coral reef and the nearby breeding ground for humpback whales, endangered turtles and dugongs.

Fatigue was a contributory factor in many Great Barrier Reef incidents, including Peacock in July 1996 and Doric Chariot in July 2002. Similar fatigue-related circumstances appear to have contributed to the Shen Neng 1 disaster as the ship did not make a turn and hit the reef in broad daylight. “Navigating a ship through these waters is not difficult,” Maritime Safety Queensland general manager Patrick Quirk said. “Any competent crew should be able to do it.”

Fatigue is a difficult risk to manage in an international crew such as those on Shen Neng 1 . The life of a shipping crew has been described as hours of boredom punctuated by moments of terror. To most crews arrival and departure herald a stressful time with long hours of work and little time to sleep.

The Australian Commonwealth government, represented by the Australian Maritime Safety Authority, has control of 12 nautical miles of sea from the shoreline. As the Great Barrier Reef extends past the 12 nm mark, in order to implement compulsory pilotage and manage risks such as fatigue, the region first had to be declared a ‘Particularly Sensitive Sea Area’ by the International Maritime Organization in 1990. ‘Associated Protective Measures’ were than negotiated and implemented.

These measures involved the adoption of compulsory pilotage in the northern areas of the reef as well as a mandatory vessel reporting and monitoring system in those areas. In those parts of the reef, Australian pilots are in charge of the vessel and are regulated by AMSA. Fatigue and other risks such as drugs and alcohol can be managed in Australian pilots.

Since 1993, a requirement for compulsory pilotage has been considered by at least three official reviews in the wake of major shipping incidents in the Great Barrier Reef. A review after the grounding of the containership Bunga Teratai Satu south of Cairns in November 2000 called for compulsory pilotage to be extended for the entire length of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park. However, industry, political and international hurdles could not be overcome.

Senator Bob Brown, leader of the Australian Greens political party, said in the wake of this latest grounding: “This is a $60bn-a-year, largely foreign-owned, coal industry that is making a coal highway out of the Great Barrier Reef.” He has called for a Royal Commission into this incident and the lack of basic precautions such as marine pilots and satellite tracking of vessels in this area of the reef. He noted that fishing vessels are required to have satellite tracking, yet massive coal tankers like Shen Neng 1 are not monitored.

On April 4, the day after the Shen Neng 1 incident, three international crew members were arrested by Australian Federal Police for taking the bulk carrier Mimosa illegally through the Great Barrier Reef. Satellite imagery confirms that infringements and short cuts through the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park are all too common. The Australian government and industry may have been turning a blind eye in the name of speed or profit.

On Sunday, April 18, it was announced that the satellite ship-tracking system will be extended to the southern area of the marine park, but AMSA has not recommended compulsory coastal pilotage also be extended. Though an improvement on no tracking, it must be noted that this system has failed to prevent groundings. Compulsory pilotage was recommended after the Bunga Teratai Satu grounding because the Reef centre operator did not notice the alarm as the ship entered the restricted zone and then crashed.

A competent alert pilot is far superior to a fatigued one monitored by satellite. Alarms such as radar and GPS can be disabled, as occurred in the Shen Neng 1 incident because amended waypoints were not set. Radios can be turned down. Ships, their crew and cargo need to be protected from the hazards of the Great Barrier Reef by pilots, not systems.

‘No Reef Pilot, No Reef Passage’ means ships are not allowed into any of the Particularly Sensitive Sea Area without a pilot. The Australian pilots are stewards of the environment, and feel a responsibility towards the reef. The Great Barrier Reef Outlook Report 2009 report states: “The outlook for the Great Barrier Reef ecosystem is at a crossroad, and it is decisions made in the next few years that are likely to determine its long-term future.” No Reef Pilot, No Reef Passage will be one of those decisions.

ANDREW Jeremijenko is an occupational and environmental physician and has been involved in the response to numerous disasters, including oil spills, tsunami, earthquakes and bomb blasts. He has worked in the oil and gas industry as medical advisor at Woodside Energy and liquefied natural gas company VICO. He has run as a candidate for the Green Party in Australia. As a practising physician, he has implemented fatigue management in industry and has a keen interest in toxicology including exposures to solvents and heavy metals. He is the chief medical officer of TeleDr, a private company that connects people with telemedicine providers.

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