Oily Water Patches Sighted Near Australia’s Great Barrier Reef

The Great Barrier Reef.

Photographer: Andrew Watson/Getty Images

Patches of oily water detected near Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, a Unesco-protected site, will be investigated further Saturday morning, local authorities said.

“We can confirm some patches of oily water have been sighted in the water south of Townsville,” Maritime Safety Queensland said in an e-mailed statement Friday. “A water police vessel out of Townsville and Emergency Management Queensland helicopter investigated and reported a sheen on the water and small oily patches about 1 meter in diameter.”

The sighting of oil near the reef is of environmental concern because the world heritage site is the largest ecosystem of its kind, hosting over 1,500 species of fish, 400 of coral and 4,000 mollusks. The current outlook for the reef is “poor, has worsened since 2009 and is expected to further deteriorate in the future,” according to Unesco’s website.

An Australian Maritime Safety Authority aircraft will make an early-morning inspection of the ocean, islands and coastline to investigate the oily patches, according to Friday’s statement.

The reef was hit by an oil spill in 2010 when a Chinese coal carrier, the Shen Neng 1, became grounded on the Douglas Shoal. The accident destroyed 116,000 square meters (1.2 million square feet) of reef, leaked about 4 tons of oil and spread toxic paint.

Queensland also suffered a spill in 2009 after about 250 metric tons of fuel oil leaked from the MV Pacific Adventurer when its hull was ruptured in rough seas whipped up by a cyclone. The resulting slick contaminated about 60 kilometers of beach and mangroves, and parts of the Sunshine Coast, Moreton Island and Bribie Island were declared disaster zones.

Swire Shipping Ltd., operator of that ship, agreed in August 2009 to pay A$25 million for cleanup and damages associated with a spill.

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