By Bill Mason
BRISBANE — The oil spill from the tanker Kirki off the Western Australian coast (see pages 12 and 13) has dramatically focussed attention on the threat of a disaster on Queensland's Great Barrier Reef.
A 1988 report to a marine insurance conference in Sydney warned of "an accident waiting to happen" on the reef because of the refusal of many ships, including large bulk carriers and tankers, to take local pilots on board when navigating difficult stretches in Barrier Reef waters.
The main risk of a major oil spill on the reef is presented by the nature of those shipping channels.
The so-called inner route, on the inside of the reef, is the main channel for ships plying between Australia's east coast and Asia, including vessels carrying imported oil for Brisbane refineries.
The northern section, between Cairns and Cape York, and into the Torres Strait, has been described as a navigator's nightmare: a labyrinth of scattered reefs, rocks, islands and shoals.
Ships have to contend with vicious tidal currents and countless other above-water hazards, including hundreds of commercial fishing boats which operate in and around the channel.
Despite International Maritime Organisation recognition of the high ecological importance of the region and the navigational risks, shown by the IMO declaring the reef a recommended pilotage area, a staggering 17% of the estimated 2000 ships which transited the Barrier Reef area in the 1989 did so without pilots.
A new federal law will enforce pilotage for large vessels traversing the designated areas in the coming year.
However, no law can guarantee against a spill like the Exxon Valdez catastrophe off Alaska in 1989.
And the equipment, population and in some cases navigation knowledge to fight a large oil spill are lacking in Queensland, the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority says.
While oil drilling has been banned on the reef, drilling has recently been suggested in the Coral Sea.
The authority says the reef is just too big to protect. So an oil spill could mean horrible destruction to vast areas of marine and coastal areas.
The GBRMPA assistant executive officer in charge of planning and management, Wendy Craik, said on July 21: "The authority and others have been fortunate there have been no large oil spills since the Oceanic Grandeur."
The Oceanic Grandeur grounded in Torres Strait in 1970 and spilled about 1.3 million litres of oil.
"A large spill or a spill in a remote area will be almost impossible to effectively combat", Craik said.