A Chinese coal carrier that ran aground and leaked oil on Australia's Great Barrier Reef cut a 2-mile-long scar into the shoal and may have smeared paint that will prevent marine life from growing back, the reef's chief scientist said Tuesday.
Even if severe toxic contamination is not found at the site, initial assessments by the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority indicate it could take 20 years for the world's largest coral reef to recover, said scientist David Wachenfeld.
"There is more damage to this reef than I have ever seen in any previous Great Barrier Reef groundings," Wachenfeld told reporters on Tuesday. The Shen Neng 1 ground into large parts of the shoal, leaving a scar 1.9 miles long and up to 820 feet wide.
The 755-foot vessel veered into protected waters and slammed into a shoal on April 3. Coral shredded part of its hull, causing a leak of about 3 tons of fuel oil, which was later dispersed by chemical sprays and is believed to have caused little or no damage to the reef. Small amounts of oil, however, have begun washing up on beaches near where the ship ran aground, according to Maritime Safety Queensland.
Australian authorities are investigating alleged breaches of the law connected with the accident. Prime Minister Kevin Rudd has since warned that cargo ships entering restricted waters would face the full force of the law.
The reef was hit particularly badly because the vessel did not stay in one place once it grounded, Wachenfeld said. Instead, tides and currents pushed it along the reef, crushing and smearing potentially toxic paint onto coral and plants, he said.
In some areas, "all marine life has been completely flattened and the structure of the shoal has been pulverized by the weight of the vessel," Wachenfeld said.
Perhaps most concerning to the scientists is the chemical makeup of the paint used on the ship's hull, which divers have found spread across the vast majority of the impacted region.
Many oceangoing vessels are covered in what is known as "anti-fouling" paint, which prevents marine life from growing on their hulls and creating drag. Certain paints contain chemicals that prevent such growth, while others simply act as a barrier.
Scientists with the reef authority plan to analyze paint left by the Shen Neng to see if it contains heavy metals. If it does, Wachenfeld said, it would not only kill the marine life currently on the shoal, but prevent new life from colonizing there.
It will be at least another week before the full extent of the damage is known, but even absent of the worst toxins, he said the area's recovery could take 10 to 20 years.
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 accident occurred in the southern tip of the reef, which is not the main tourism hub.
The vessel was successfully lifted off the coral reef on Monday after crews spent three days pumping fuel from the ship to lighten it. Salvage crews later towed it to an anchorage area near Great Keppel Island, 40 nautical miles (45 miles) away.
The grounding forced a review of shipping regulations in the fragile area. Queensland state Premier Anna Bligh vowed Monday to sharply increase penalties on ships causing oil spills.
Bligh said the maximum penalty for corporations would increase from 1.75 million Australian dollars ($1.64 million) to AU$10 million, and individuals would face fines of AU$500,000 — up from AU$350,000.
The proposed new penalties are the latest sign that authorities are serious about stepping up protection of the fragile reef.
On Monday, three crewmen from another boat that allegedly entered restricted reef waters on April 4 appeared in Townsville Magistrates Court on charges of entering a prohibited zone of the reef without permission.
The South Korean master and two Vietnamese officers of the Panama-flagged coal boat MV Mimosa were granted bail and ordered to reappear Friday. They face maximum fines of 220,000 Australian dollars ($205,000).