Chemicals used to break up oil slicks could beátoxic to corals too, say Australian experts as the battle to save the Great Barrier Reef continues.
Several tonnes of fuel oil leaked from a Chinese coal carrier when it ran aground inside the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park on Saturday, and chemicals were used to disperse the resulting slick.
AdvertisementAssociate Professor Peter Harrison, the director of Marine Studies at Southern Cross University says coral spawning could be affected later this year. While oil can have dire effects on coral ecosystems, dispersants too could damage the corals .
"And in some cases the combination of oil and dispersant have increased synergistic effects," said Prof Harrison, who is also the director of the university's Coral Reef Research Centre.
"This highlights the importance of trapping the oil in booms and physically removing any spilled oil, rather than relying on dispersants."
He said that if any oil became embedded in the coral reef and sand it would have long-lasting effects.
It would be spread around tides and wave action, creating "chronic long-term pollution on the affected areas of the reef."
"This could have significant effects on coral spawning later this year, as my research has clearly shown that oils and dispersants significantly reduce coral fertilisation and larval settlement - in other words it reduces coral reproductive success," he said.
Efforts are underway to get more than 950 tonnes of heavy engine oil off the stricken ship, but no decision has yet been made on whether to try to offload 65,000 tonnes of coal.
There are enduring fears the vessel could break up if the weather turns bad and dump its load onto the reef.
Experts agree the oil poses the most significant environmental risk, but say more needs to be done to determine what other cargoes such as coal and LNG would do to the reef.
Earlier this week, marine geologist Dr Greg Webb from the Queensland University of Technology said the double whammy of an oil and coal spill would have unknown consequences.
On Wednesday, the Australian Conservation Foundation said new studies must be commissioned to determine exactly what will happen if bulk coal or LNG ends up on the Great Barrier Reef.
Queensland Transport Minister Rachel Nolan says it could take days to pump the oil from a stricken Chinese coal carrier on the Great Barrier Reef.
Ms Nolan flew over the stricken ship today.
Authorities say more than two tonnes of oil has leaked from the ship but it has since been dispersed with chemicals.
She says the remaining 950 tonnes of oil still on board will be pumped out in coming days.
"The whole purpose of this is to prevent oil from spilling into the sea," she said.
Ms Nolan says preparations are being put in place should there be any oil leak during the process.
It is expected to be weeks before the ship can be moved off the reef
The 2010 Great Barrier Reef oil spill occurred on 3 April 2010, when the Chinese bulk coal carrier Shen Neng 1 ran aground east of Rockhampton in Central Queensland, Australia.
The 230-metre (750 ft) bulk carrier was en-route to China from Gladstone, Queensland, when she sailed outside the shipping lane and ran aground on Douglas Shoal east of Great Keppel Island. One of the vessel's fuel tanks was damaged: it was initially assumed that up to 150átonnes (147.6 long tons) of heavy fuel oil had leaked from the ship in a narrow oil slick was extending 2ánautical miles (3.7ákm; 2.3ámi) from Shen Neng One, but on investigation, it was found that only 3-4át (3.0-3.9 long tons) had been lost. Maritime Safety Queensland is considering the possibility that the ship may break up, releasing another 800át (790 long tons) of fuel oil.
According to the Australian Maritime Safety Authority, the Shen Neng 1 was supposed to be on a route between Douglas Shoal and the Capricorn Islands. However, a preliminary investigation by Maritime Safety Queensland revealed that the Shen Neng 1 was 15ánmi (28ákm; 17ámi) off course, ending up in an area subject to highly stringent environmental restrictions.
Queensland Premier Anna Bligh has said that the Shen Neng 1 had broken Australian law by even being in the area. The area is part of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park, which is closed to all commercial shipping.
Prime Minister Kevin Rudd visited the site on 5 April, and said that his government's main task at this point was to "bring to account those who are responsible" for threatening what he called Australia's greatest natural asset. He also promised to review shipping rules in the area, amid reports that many vessels frequently took shortcuts, or "rat runs," around the reef.
COSCO, the state-owned Chinese company, could face severe fines if it is determined it broke the law. Rudd said the company could be fined up to A$5.5 million, while Bligh said COSCO could be fined up to $1 million and the ship's master $250,000.
Prime Minister Kevin Rudd said that it was outrageous for the ship to have strayed off course in broad daylight.
As conservationists, including the Australian Greens political party and the Capricorn Conservation Council, question the lack of requirement to have pilots stationed aboard ships transiting the Barrier Reef, the shipping industry is panicking and calling upon the the Commonwealth and Queensland Governments to consultáthe industry on any changes to laws and regulations.
Shipping Australia's chief executive Llew Russell says while tighter policing may be needed the industry should get a say.
"The question of putting compulsory pilots on board for example is an issue that would have to go through the international maritime organisation and could take a long time," he said.