CANBERRA, Australia, June 28, 2017 (ENS) – Australian federal prosecutors are pursuing legal action against the master and owner of a ship they claim is responsible for an major oil spill near the Great Barrier Reef in 2015.  The largest living structure on Earth, the worth of the reef has just been calculated at $56 billion, prompting calls for greater protection.

The ship company owner, Panama-based Globex Shipping, and its master, Kuk Hyun Jang, each are charged with two offenses under the Protection of the Sea Act for the incident in July 2015 that released some 15 tonnes of oil.

The oil fouled 40 kilometers of shoreline near Cape Upstart National Park. Sites affected by the oil spill include Forrest Beach on the mainland, Hinchinbrook Island and the Palm Island Group.

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Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service Ranger examines Mulligans Beach at Hinchbrook Island during Cape Upstart oil spill response, June 2015 (Photo © GBRMPA)

The lawsuit comes after a 12-month investigation that identified 17 ships that had been in the area 72 hours before the spill.

Queensland Ports Minister Mark Bailey told reporters, “Investigators tracked down these individual ships, many of which were on international voyages, checked on-board records, interviewed crews and took oil samples for elimination testing against samples from the spill.”

Bailey said the estimated cost of the oil spill response was up to $1.5 million.

The case will be heard on August 2 in the Townsville Magistrates Court in Queensland.

The Queensland government says the lawsuit sends an important signal to potential polluters, who could be fined as much as A$17 million for befouling this unique and priceless UNESCO World Heritage site.

Located in the Coral Sea, off the coast of Queensland, Australia, the Great Barrier Reef is the world’s largest coral reef system. It is made up of over 2,900 individual reefs and 900 islands stretching for over 2,300 kilometres (1,400 miles) over an area of 344,400 square kilometres (133,000 sq mi).

The prosecution was announced just as Deloitte Access Economics released a new report that calculates the total economic, social and icon asset value of the Great Barrier Reef at $56 billion. The reef supports 64,000 jobs and contributes $6.4 billion to the Australian economy, the report finds.

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Great Barrier Reef of the coast of Queensland, Australia (Photo by FarbenfroheWunderwelt)

Commissioned by the Great Barrier Reef Foundation with support from National Australia Bank and the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, the report assesses the reef’s economic, social and iconic brand value together in one study for the first time.

The Great Barrier Reef is the largest living structure and continuous coral reef system on Earth. It is as big as Japan, and is inhabited by at least 1,700 species of fish and other aquatic animals.

Dr. John Schubert, who chairs the Great Barrier Reef Foundation, said in his foreword to the report, “Today, our Reef is under threat like never before. Two consecutive years of global coral bleaching are unprecedented, while increasingly frequent extreme weather events and water quality issues continue to affect Reef health. So there has never been a more critical time to understand precisely what the Reef contributes and, therefore, what we stand to lose without it.”

Schubert wants the report to inform future government policies regarding the reef and help everyone “to fully understand the contribution of the Great Barrier Reef to the economy and society, both in Australia and around the world.”

“We all must do more – much more – to protect the Reef,” Schubert declares. “The Foundation is committed to enabling large-scale, ambitious projects that go to the heart of building the Reef’s resilience. We believe that mitigation and adaptation in the face of a changing climate are key.

“Fundamentally, our work is about finding ways to ease the environmental burden on the Reef – effectively buying the Reef time – as the world works to meet the terms of the Paris Agreement,” he explains.

Great Barrier Reef Foundation Director Steve Sargent said, “As the planet’s largest living structure and one of the world’s most complex and diverse natural ecosystems, the Great Barrier Reef is justifiably considered both priceless and irreplaceable.”

“Like the Great Barrier Reef itself, the numbers revealed in the report are big and highlight just how significant the Reef’s contribution to Australia’s economy is,” said Sargent.

The report shows an overall $56 billion value as an economic, social, and iconic natural asset, and in addition:
* – $6.4 billion economic value added to the Australian economy in 2015-16;
* – $3.9 billion in economic value added to Queensland’s economy in 2015-16;
* – $2.9 billion economic value added to the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park (GBRMP) region in 2015-16; and
* – 64,000 jobs nationally linked to the Reef, including 33,000 in Queensland.

“At $29 billion, tourism is the biggest contributor to the Reef’s $56 billion value, followed by $23.8 billion from indirect or non-use value, that is, those who haven’t yet visited the Reef but value knowing it exists, and its value to recreational users ($3.2 billion) makes up the balance,” Sargent said.

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Visitors enjoy snorkeling on the Great Barrier Reef, May 2016 (Photo by Ron Klopfer)

Yet the environmental condition of the reef is being degraded. Heavy fuel oil, diesel, other oils and hydraulic fluids have been spilled 879 times into Queensland ports and coastal waters since 2002, reports the “Brisbane Times” in a recent article based on Queensland government records.

With all of this in mind, public feedback is invited on a draft policy for cruise ship operations in the Great Barrier Reef.

The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority’s draft policy brings together all current management arrangements for cruise ships operating across the Reef and promotes ecologically-sustainable activities.

“A review of this policy is timely to recognise the changing needs of industry and the community,” said, Fred Nucifora, Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority Tourism and Stewardship Director.

“The draft encourages the cruise ship industry to contribute to protecting the Great Barrier Reef and recognize its outstanding universal value when conducting operations in this World Heritage Area,” Nucifora said.

The revisions were made with input from the tourism industry and government agencies and describe best practice management and clarifies cruise ship access to the Great Barrier Reef, waste discharge, compliance, environmental management charge and permitting arrangements.

The Marine Park Authority will consult further with the tourism industry, cruise ship permittees and Traditional Owners while the draft policy is open for public feedback.

Key amendments include adopting a joint management approach with Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service that applies to both the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park and the Great Barrier Reef Coast Marine Park.

Strengthening and encouraging best practice including stewardship opportunities with Traditional Owners.

The cruise ship consultation is open until 5:00pm Friday, July 14, 2017. To comment on the draft policy visit www.gbrmpa.gov.au.

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