The Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area contains several important commercial trading routes, through which a range of products are carried to and from southern ports and communities along the Queensland coast. There are approximately 6000 ships (greater than 50m in length) transiting within the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area annually. About 75 % of all ships navigate the inner route, the remainder using Grafton, Palm, Capricorn Channel and Hydrographers Passage. Bulk carriers comprise the largest proportion of shipping. Ships transiting the inner shipping route carry a wide range of cargoes including bauxite and alumina, manganese, iron ore, coal, sugar, silica sand, general container freight and petroleum products.

Oil or chemical spills released from ships following an incident, carried as either fuel or cargo, has the potential to cause serious environmental damage to the marine environment particularly corals, mangroves, shorelines, dugongs, turtles and seabirds. However, waste products and garbage from the day-to-day operation of a ship can also pollute the waters of the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area and cause serious chronic environmental damage. These wastes include oils, chemicals, sewage, garbage, toxic compounds released from anti-fouling paints and ballast water.

Shipping incidents (including groundings, collisions, fuel spills, vessel sinkings) may cause substantial damage to the reef structure and surrounding areas, including soft bottom benthic habitats and seagrass meadows. Ship groundings have the potential to release large, concentrated quantities of antifouling chemicals including tributyl tins (TBT) and copper into the reef environment. Some larger vessel groundings, which have occurred in the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area, include:

  • MV Doric Chariot – Piper Reef in July 2002 (Media Release)
  • Bunga Terati Satu – Sudbury Reef in November 2000 (Media Release)
  • New Reach – Heath Reef in May 1999 (Media Release)
  • Peacock – Piper Reef in July 1996
  • Svendborg Guardian – Kurramine Beach in June 1995
  • Carola – South Ledge Reef in March 1995
Peacock – Piper Reef in July 1996

The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority and Maritime Safety Queensland jointly prepared an Oil Spill Risk Assessment for the Coastal Waters of Queensland and the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park in August 2000. The assessment took into account such factors as navigational difficulty, accident history and environmental vulnerability to develop a number of Marine Environment High Risk Areas – MEHRAs throughout the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park. The assessment identified a trend of one incident of grounding or collision involving a large ship per year and three high-risk areas within the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park:

  • The inner route north of Cairns;
  • The Whitsunday Islands; and
  • Hydrographer’s Passage.

In November 2000, the Minister for Transport and Regional Services commissioned a review of ship safety and pollution prevention measures in the Great Barrier Reef and Torres Strait. The review was tasked to develop strategies to address:

  • Extension of the compulsory pilotage area in the Reef;
  • Advancing the introduction of technological developments to track and monitor shipping operations;
  • Enhancing ship routing, traffic management and emergency response arrangements;
  • Constraining certain ship types from operating in or near the Reef; and
  • Improving legislative powers of intervention and enforcement, heightening penalties and ordering restitution.
  • You can access the review via the Australian Maritime Safety Authority’s website “Review of ship safety and pollution prevention measures in the Great Barrier Reef”.

An Intergovernmental Shipping Management Group has been established to implement the recommendations of the Review.

Ballast water is used to alter the draft, trim and stability of a ship during its voyage, cargo loading and unloading operations at port and at sea. There is significant potential for exotic marine pests to be translocated to the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area in ballast water or through hull fouling. However, currently there are no known introductions of exotic marine animals or plants that have attained pest status within the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area. The Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry – Australia and the Australian Quarantine and Inspection Service are responsible for day-to-day management of ballast water issues. At the international level, the International Maritime Organisation is developing a new international convention for the control and management of ships’ ballast water.

The dumping of rubbish and other debris from ships into the marine environment can have detrimental effects on wildlife and may contain pollutant residues. Discarded rubbish can have a range of environmental consequences. Rubbish such as plastics and fishing line can entangle wildlife, often resulting in strangulation, limb amputation or drowning. Smaller pieces of rubbish, like cigarette butts and plastics, can be swallowed by marine animals (such as turtles) and cause internal blockages, often resulting in starvation and other complications. There are also economic impacts of rubbish accumulating on our beaches. This includes the loss of aesthetic values in recreational areas that are reliant on tourism –generated income.

Further information regarding shipping can be found in the Great Barrier Reef Catchment Water Quality Current Issues report 2001 and on the Principal water quality influences on Great Barrier Reef ecosystems web pages.

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