Captain and officer held over Great Barrier Reef accident

Australian police arrested the captain and senior officer of a Chinese ship yesterday and charged them with damaging the Great Barrier Reef, more than a week after their coal carrier ran aground and tore a two-mile gash in the protected area.

The Shen Neng 1 veered out of a shipping lane and slammed into the reef on 3 April, possibly smearing the coral with toxic paint that could prevent marine life from growing back. Even in the best-case scenario, experts said the damage could take 20 years to heal. Coral shredded the ship's hull, causing it to leak two to three tonnes of fuel oil.

Most of the oil was dispersed by a chemical spray and did little or no damage to the reef itself, but officials said they believe some of it has begun to wash up on the beaches of a wildlife sanctuary.

The Great Barrier Reef is a World Heritage Site because of its gleaming waters and environmental value as home to thousands of marine species. The accident was in the reef's southern tip, which is not the main tourism hub.

Australian police said the ship's captain and the chief officer on watch during the accident would appear in court today. The police said officers executed a search warrant on the ship yesterday. The ship's owners said last week that they were cooperating with the investigation.

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