|Maritime officials said the bulk coal carrier is stable enough not to break apart [Reuters]
Australian authorities have said they will question the crew of a Chinese-registered ship that ran aground on the Great Barrier Reef to find out why they were sailing in a restricted area.
The bulk carrier Shen Neng 1 ran aground on Saturday when it hit a shoal off the eastern state of Queensland at full speed, rupturing a fuel tank and causing a 3km-long slick.
Authorities had feared the ship could break up causing an environmental disaster, but on Tuesday those worries had eased somewhat with recovery workers saying damage to the ship was not as bad as initially thought, although it could still be stranded on the reef for several weeks.
The 230-metre ship, carrying 975 tonnes of heavy fuel oil and 65,000 tonnes of coal, ran aground on Douglas Shoals, a protected part of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park 15km outside the nearest shipping channel.
Oil to be removed
Al Jazeera's Nicole Johnston, in the port of Gladstone in Queensland, from where the ship set sail, said: "The Chinese carrier is still stuck on the Barrier Reef but officials have decided to remove all of its oil.
"It has stopped leaking now, but has lost about three tonnes of oil. Weather conditions look favourable for the next few days but there is still the chance that the ship could fall apart."
Kevin Rudd, the Australian prime minister, who flew over the affected site, expressed anger over the incident which he described as "outrageous".
"From where I sit, it is outrageous that any vessel could find itself ... off course, it seems, in the Great Barrier Reef"
Kevin Rudd, Australian Prime Minister
He warned that the badly damaged ship that is stranded on a shoal remained a serious threat to the ecosystem of the Barrier Reef.
"This remains a serious situation," Rudd said, vowing to bring those responsible to account.
"I take any threat to the Great Barrier Reef fundamentally seriously. From where I sit, it is outrageous that any vessel could find itself ... off course, it seems, in the Great Barrier Reef," he said.
In the wake of the incident, marine officials said they would look into whether foreign ships were taking illegal short cuts through the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park.
Environmental laws bar shipping in the area in order to protect what is the world's largest coral reef, a World Heritage site home to thousands of marine species.
"We've always said the vessel is up in an area it shouldn't be in the first place," Patrick Quirk, the general manager of Marine Safety Queensland, said.
"How it got to that to that position will be the subject of a detailed investigation by the Australian Transport Safety Board."
Quirk said that the agency was aware that other ships sometimes used a short cut through the reef, a practice that will now be reviewed by the federal government.
Booming export trade
The stricken ship was travelling to China from Gladstone, a port playing a growing role in the booming export trade of Australia's natural resources to Asia.
The ship's owner, Shenzhen Energy, a subsidiary of the Chinese shipping giant Cosco, could be fined up to A$1m ($920,000) for straying from a shipping lane used by 6,000 cargo vessels each year.
Conservation groups meanwhile have expressed anger that bulk carriers are allowed to travel through the reef without a specialised marine pilot.
|The Shen Neng 1 has spilled about two tonnes of oil since running aground on Monday [EPA]
Shipping lanes in Australian waters typically require an experienced captain to go aboard an incoming ship to help navigate around hazards.
But until now the government has said there is no need for marine pilots around the protected area because large ships are banned there.
Commenting on the incident, the WWF said large vessels transiting through the Great Barrier Reef must be in the hands of local pilots with local knowledge.
"The current lack of safeguards around shipping in the Great Barrier Reef is akin to playing Russian roulette with one of the world's most treasured natural icons," Gilly Llewellyn, the conservation director of WWF-Australia, said in a statement.
"In addition to having compulsory pilots with local expertise on all large vessels in the reef, there needs to be much better monitoring systems in place so that authorities know where large vessels are on the reef at all times."
Llewellyn said that as long as the ship remained stuck on the reef it was "a ticking environmental time-bomb".