Environmental management of shipping operations

The management of shipping activities is complex due to the predominately international nature of the industry. In most cases, management initiatives are implemented through international agreements and guidelines developed through the International Maritime Organisation. The Australian Maritime Safety Authority represents the Australian Government in this forum. Nevertheless, shipping and boating activities are also subject to state and national level regulations that reflect or implement international conventions and regulations. In recognition of the outstanding values of the Great Barrier Reef, the waters of the Great Barrier Reef have the most stringent management arrangements for commercial shipping of any water body in the world.

Legislation, conventions and management arrangements applying to shipping in the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park

A number of international and national management arrangements and obligations apply throughout all Australian waters, including the Great Barrier Reef. The management framework for shipping activities is determined by a series of international conventions that are implemented through Australian law. These international conventions and regulations include:

These conventions are implemented within Australia and the Great Barrier Reef region by the Australian Maritime Safety Authority, the Department of Transport and Regional Services, the Department of the Environment and Heritage, Maritime Safety Queensland and the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority through the following articles of legislation:

Australian Maritime Safety Authority
  • Navigation Act 1912
  • Protection of the Sea (Prevention of Pollution) from Ships Act 1983
  • Protection of the Sea (Powers of Intervention) Act 1981
  • Protection of the Sea (Civil Liability) Act 1981
Department of Transport and Regional Services
  • Maritime Transport Security Bill 2003
  • Transport Safety Investigation Act
Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority
  • Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Act 1975
  • Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Regulations 1983
  • Area Plans of Management
Maritime Safety Queensland
  • Transport Operations (Marine Safety) Act 1994
  • Transport Operations (Marine Pollution) Act 1995.
Department of Environment and Heritage
  • Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999
  • Environment Protection (Sea Dumping) Act 1981
  • Historic Shipwrecks Act 1976
  • Sea Installations Act 1981

Special Protective Measures

The International Maritime Organisation has declared the Great Barrier Reef a “Particularly Sensitive Sea Area”. Accordingly, special protective measures have been implemented to reduce the risk of shipping incidents.

In 1990, the International Maritime Organisation declared the Great Barrier Reef region a ‘Particularly Sensitive Sea Area’. This declaration allowed for internationally recognised ‘Associated Protective Measures’ to be implemented in the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park. This measure has involved the adoption of compulsory pilotage, recommended pilotage and a mandatory vessel reporting and monitoring system in certain areas of the Great Barrier Reef where navigation is more difficult. These measures have been implemented to increase navigational safety and reduce the risk of ship groundings and collisions (see Reducing the risk of shipping incidents ).

Great Barrier Reef Shipping Management Group

Shipping in the Great Barrier Reef is managed by several government agencies including the Australian Maritime Safety Authority, Maritime Safety Queensland, the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority and the Commonwealth Department of Transport and Regional Services. These agencies have implemented the recommendations of the 2001 Review of Great Barrier Reef Ship Safety and Pollution Prevention Measures including measures to improve coastal pilotage, adopting new technology to improve safety and navigation, enhancing ship management and emergency response, and reviewing the regulation and management of shipping.

A Shipping Management Plan and Shipping Impact Study were also finalised in 2003 following broad consultation with community and industry groups. The Shipping Impact Study provides information about the main risks posed by shipping in the Great Barrier Reef. The Shipping Management Plan is a strategic level document that provides a vision for how shipping will be managed, and sets out common goals and understandings between the various agencies involved in the management of shipping. The Plan’s objectives include reducing the environmental impacts of shipping by minimising the risks of incidents, reducing operational discharges, minimising the risk posed by introduced marine species, and enhancing incident response.

The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority’s role in managing shipping activities

As the principal adviser to the Australian Government on the care and development of the Marine Park, the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority undertakes a range of activities to manage the potential impacts of shipping activities including:

  • Administering legal requirements under the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Act 1975 and Regulations, including the compulsory use of local pilots for certain ships within prescribed areas, restrictions on certain activities (for example, waste discharge, negligent shipping), wreck removal and penalties for causing environmental damage to the Marine Park
  • Regulating the entry and use of the Marine Park by ships and boats through the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Zoning Plan 2003
  • Administering Plans of Management that focus on specific issues such as access, levels of use and cumulative impacts at high use or sensitive  sites
  • Developing and promoting Best Environmental Practices to help users of the Marine Park understand how they can minimise the environmental impacts of their activities. These guidelines include advice for anchoring, transferring fuel, disposal of litter and waste and watching marine wildlife.

Management actions applying to shipping in the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park

MARPOL is the international convention on marine pollution, and is applied in the Great Barrier Reef through various articles of legislation.

In general, the various regulations, conventions and policies applied in the Great Barrier Reef are aimed at:

  • Managing operational ship-sourced pollutants to reduce the environmental impacts of issues such as operational ship-sourced pollutants, introduced marine species, and anti-foulant paint
  • Improving shipping and navigation safetyto minimise the risk of ship groundings, collisions or other incidents
  • Implementing an effective response should a shipping incident occur.

Management of operational ship-sourced pollutants

Discharge and disposal or waste

The International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships (MARPOL 73/78) regulates the discharge of operational ship-sourced pollutants. Within the Great Barrier Reef, MARPOL is implemented through the Protection of the Sea (Prevention of Pollution) from Ships Act 1983, Transport Operations (Marine Pollution) Act 1995 and the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Act 1975.

MARPOL has six technical annexes, each regulating a particular type of pollution. Annexes I and II regulate oil and bulk noxious liquid substances; Annex III regulates harmful substances in packaged forms; Annex IV regulates sewage; Annex V regulates garbage; and Annex VI regulates air pollution from ships. The MARPOL annexes describe the conditions under which these substances can be discharged, as well as design specifications for ships to minimise these discharges.

MARPOL generally prohibits the discharge of oily substances and certain cargo tank washings from any vessel within 50 nautical miles from the ‘nearest land’, unless the residue is passed through an oily water separator and is discharged at a concentration of less than 15 parts per million. In the case of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park, nearest land is a line drawn along the outer edge of the Great Barrier Reef. MARPOL also prohibits the disposal of any plastics at sea, and all other garbage and litter cannot be disposed into the sea within 12 nautical miles of the nearest land. These restrictions apply to all vessels including recreational vessels, yachts, dinghies and fishing vessels. Fines of up to A$1.1 million (for companies) and A$275 000 (for individuals) may be applied. All vessels over 12 metres long are required to clearly display these regulations on board for passengers and crew.

MARPOL places a duty on the ship’s Master or operator to report any incident that involves a discharge or probable discharge of oil, noxious liquid substances or harmful packaged substances. The ship’s Master or operators are also obliged to report any damage, failure or breakdown that affects the safety of the ship or reduces the ship’s ability to navigate safely.

The discharge of sewage in the Marine Park is regulated under the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Act 1975. On 1 January 2005, new vessel sewage regulations for the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park were introduced. These new regulations implement sewage discharge requirements under Annex IV of MARPOL and complement recent changes to sewage discharge regulations under the Queensland Transport Operations (Marine Pollution) Act 1995. Under the new arrangements, any vessel carrying more than 15 people must discharge macerated sewage at least one nautical mile seawards from the nearest reef, island, mainland or an aquaculture facility. A boat carrying less than 15 people may pump out macerated sewage in the Marine Park anywhere outside of a boat harbour or marina or more than one nautical mile from an aquaculture facility. A vessel also has the option of discharging treated sewage into the Marine Park at varying distances from a sensitive area depending on the level of treatment received.

Introduced marine species

Prior to the mid-1990s, there were no data available about the occurrence and distribution of introduced marine species in Australian ports. However, by the late 1990s the CSIRO based Centre for Research on Introduced Marine Pests (CRIMP) had implemented an Australia-wide programme to assess the occurrence of introduced marine species in Australian ports, and to develop a system for their early detection. In 1998, the Australian Government announced its intention to develop a national system for addressing introduced marine species in Australia’s Oceans Policy. Since that time, the National Introduced Marine Pests Coordination Group (comprising representatives from the Australian Government and State and Territory Governments, marine industries, scientists and conservation organisations) has been developing a National System for the Prevention and Management of Marine Pest Incursions. The National System has three core elements:

  1. Prevention: mechanisms to reduce the risk of introduction and translocation of marine pests
  2. Emergency response: systems to ensure coordinated emergency responses to any new incursions and translocations
  3. Ongoing management and control: a coordinated management system for the ongoing management and control of introduced marine pests already in Australian waters.

New research programmes have been implemented to detect introduced marine organisms and identify ways to prevent their release into the marine environment, especially at ports.

In April 2005, an Intergovernmental Agreement on a National System for the Prevention and Management of Marine Pest Incursions was signed by the Australian Government and several State and Territory Governments. The Agreement was developed to ensure that measures to address introduced marine species are coordinated across jurisdictional boundaries, and that they are consistent with current or future international agreements relating to introduced marine species.

Research on introduced marine species is also being undertaken through the Cooperative Research Centre for Reef Research, and through the Australian Government’s Natural Heritage Trust Introduced Marine Pests and Ballast Water Mitigation Programmes. These programmes are focused on identifying the presence and distribution of introduced marine species, and developing systems to treat ballast water to remove these organisms.

International measures are also being taken to prevent the introduction of these species in Australian waters from ballast water. An International Convention for the Control and Management of Ships Ballast Water and Sediments 2004 was recently developed to help reduce the risk of harmful aquatic organisms and pathogens being introduced by ships entering ports. Although it has yet to come into force, the Convention specifies that ballast water exchange should occur outside of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park. When these requirements cannot be met, areas may be designated where ships can conduct ballast water exchange.

Anti-foulant paint

Antifoulant residues have been removed from grounding sites to help promote the recovery of grounding scars, and to reduce the impact of these residues on marine life in adjacent areas.

In recognition of the toxicity of tri-butyl tin (TBT) to marine plants and animals, and the chronic pollution it causes, the International Maritime Organisation has developed a protocol for banning the use of TBT on all ocean going ships by 2008. No TBT is to be applied or reapplied after 1January 2003 and by 1 January 2008, no ships shall have TBT on their hulls, or at the least, any existing TBT must be covered. In Australia, this initiative is being supported through the Antifouling Programme as part of Australia’s Oceans Policy.

Alternative anti fouling options include copper based paints, and non-toxic silicone or fluorinated polymers that make it harder for fouling organisms to attach to ships. Most commercial trading ships use tin-free antifouling paints although some cruise ships opt to use longer lasting but more expensive silicon fouling release coatings to reduce the risks to ecologically sensitive sea areas.8

Research has demonstrated that residues of antifoulant paint scraped onto coral reefs during ship groundings can have a significant effect on marine organisms and may significant delay recovery.5,13 Consequently, marine management agencies have coordinated the removal of contaminated sediment and antifoulant residues from ship grounding sites such as Sudbury Reef where the MV Bunga Terati Satu ran aground in November 2000, and at Piper Reef where the MV Doric Chariot ran aground in July 2002. The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority is monitoring the recovery of grounding sites to better understand the factors influencing the rate of recovery, and long-term effects of grounding incidents.

Improving shipping and navigation safety

Pilotage and vessel management systems

Technological advances have introduced a suite of navigation and vessel management systems to complement older lights and beacons. These systems enhance navigational safety, thus reducing the risk of shipping incidents.  

A variety of management initiatives have been implemented to reduce the risk of shipping incidents in the Great Barrier Reef. Currently, all vessels over 70 metres in length, or transporting bulk oil, chemicals and liquefied gas cargoes are required to carry a pilot when transiting the inner shipping route north of Cairns, the waters around the Whitsunday Islands and the Hydrographers Passage (off Mackay). Compulsory pilotage may reduce the risk of an accident by a factor of 30.3

A vessel management system known as the Torres Strait and Great Barrier Reef Ship Reporting System (ReefRep) was implemented in 1996 to increase navigational safety within an area north of Gladstone to the Torres Strait. Under this system, all vessels over 50 metres in length, special product carriers and certain vessels under tow are required to report their position at specific points along the inner shipping route. The reporting system is integrated with a system of navigation aids including VHF radio, radar monitoring and a network of differential global positioning systems and Automatic Identification System stations situated throughout the Great Barrier Reef.  Automated Position Reporting via Inmarsat C is now the primary means for ships to provide position reports.  Improvements in the quality of ship traffic information delivered through the ReefRep system resulted in changes to it function and name. In December 2004, ReefRep was renamed ReefVTS (Reef Vessel Traffic System).

Ship management provisions under the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Zoning Plan (2003)

Figure 2. Ships travelling through the Great Barrier Reef use designated shipping areas (click to enlarge the map).

The primary management tool under the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Act 1975 is the Marine Park Zoning Plans. This plan designates where different activities may occur, and how they are to be conducted within the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park. In July 2004, new zoning for the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park came into force to better protect the range of biodiversity and ecological processes of the Marine Park. Under the Zoning Plan 2003, commercial ships do not require a permit to transit through General Use (light blue) Zones and Designated Shipping Areas (see Figure 2). By describing Designated Shipping Areas, the new Zoning Plan 2003 also provides for ‘certainty of access’ for shipping in the Marine Park, and has simplified regulations governing safety, pollution prevention response, and search and rescue.

Improving shipping standards

The Australian Maritime Safety Authority also conducts a national programme known as the “Port State Control”. Under this programme, ships may be inspected to determine whether they meet international safety and environmental requirements. The programme aims to deter substandard or unsafe ships entering Australian waters. Due to international law and safety considerations, there are significant limitations that prevent the boarding and inspection of vessels at sea and thus inspections are usually carried out only after the vessel has transited through Australian waters and docked in port. Australian legislation allows for strict penalties, including the detention of substandard ships for non-compliance, and vessel operators and their agents are increasingly reluctant to bring substandard ships into Australian waters.

In early 2005, the International Maritime Organisation released new protocols for the global phase-out of single hulled oil tankers. Single hulled tankers pose a higher risk of oil spill than double hulled tankers as the oil is carried in tanks located against the hull. As a result, a hull rupture is more likely to also rupture a tank. While the new protocols are important to reducing the risk of oil spills in the world’s oceans, there are very few single hulled oil tankers operating in the Great Barrier Reef so the new protocols will not significantly affect shipping operations in these waters.

Enforcing shipping standards and legislation

The enforcement of local, national and international shipping laws in the Great Barrier Reef is carried out in conjunction with Australian Maritime Safety Authority, Maritime Safety Queensland, Queensland Environmental Protection Agency, Coastwatch National Marine Unit, Queensland Boating and Fisheries Patrol, Australian Federal Police and Queensland Police Service.

An investigation of a major shipping incident may involve more than one regulatory or enforcement agency, depending on the nature of the offence. Although such incidents are infrequent, the management of shipping incidents must be as effective and efficient as possible to minimise impacts and to meet Australia’s international obligations. In consultation with other agencies, the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority is developing shipping incident investigation guidelines to ensure that investigations are coordinated across all agencies involved, and that the investigation considers the roles and obligations of each of these agencies.

Response to pollution incidents and accidents

The existing management arrangements are focused on preventing shipping incidents from occurring. However, management agencies regularly develop, review and practice contingency plans to ensure that an effective response is mounted to shipping incidents.

At a national level, the Australian Maritime Safety Authority manages the National Plan to Combat the Pollution of the Sea by Oil and Other Noxious and Hazardous Substances (the National Plan) that provides an organisational framework for ship-sourced oil and chemical spill response throughout Australia. The National Plan is implemented through various national and state level contingency plans, including the Queensland Coastal Contingency Action Plan. Most port authorities have individual Oil Spill Contingency Plans. Special oil spill contingency plans called REEFPLAN and TORRESPLAN have been developed for the waters of the Great Barrier Reef and Torres Strait.

Under REEFPLAN, Maritime Safety Queensland or the Australian Maritime Safety Authority, are responsible for combating oil spills within the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area. The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority’s role is to provide environmental and scientific advice to the agency combating the oil spill. In February 2004, the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority and the Queensland Environmental Protection Agency finalised a new Marine Pollution Response Plan that describes the responsibilities of these two agencies for providing environmental advice to oil spills and shipping incidents within and adjacent to the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park.

Responding to shipping incidents and oil spills

A boom being deployed near Townsville to deflect and contain oil during a training exercise. Training in the use of all oil spill combat equipment and response management is vital for effective oil spill response.  

Significant resources have been stockpiled and prepared along the Queensland coast to respond to oil spills. Most ports have been provided with resources to respond to minor incidents of pollution (up to 10 tonnes of oil). These incidents are the most likely to occur within a port (see Case study: the Gladstone Harbour oil spill). Larger stockpiles are located in Townsville and Brisbane to respond to spills of between 10-1000 tonnes of oil. For very large spills of more than 1000 tonnes, resources are available from interstate, in particular the oil industry funded Australian Marine Oil Spill Centre in Geelong, and internationally.

There are several options for responding to an oil spill, ranging from observation and monitoring while allowing the slick to disperse and degrade naturally, to full-scale response. The response initiated will depend on a large number of factors such as location, type of oil and weather conditions.  Some options may include containment and recovery, which is aimed at stopping the oil from spreading and removing it from the water. A wide variety of equipment has been developed for these tasks including floating booms that prevent the spread of floating oil, and ‘mops’ or ‘skimmers’ or that soak up or pump out the oil. 

The use of oil spill dispersants, while providing the most credible response option in the northern and offshore areas of the Great Barrier Reef, is significantly limited by the sensitivity of reef and intertidal communities. More importantly, the oil most likely to be spilled (heavy fuel oil) is not readily dispersed and in many cases, the use of dispersants is may not be the most appropriate response option. The application of chemical dispersants within the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park must be approved by an officer prescribed within the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Regulations 1983 and is subject to conditions. For example, dispersants would not normally be used over coral reefs or seagrasses except where the oil is likely to impact upon mangroves or where water depths exceed 10 metres.

Should a shipping incident or oil spill result in the oiling of wildlife in the Marine Park, the Day-to-Day Management programme takes responsibility for coordinating the response to oiled wildlife. This may require mobilising staff, primarily from the Queensland Environmental Protection Agency, to assist in the treatment and recovery of oiled wildlife.    

Recognising the potential consequences of a major oil spill, the Great Barrier Reef is afforded the highest levels of shipping related management anywhere in the world.  

There are several logistical considerations that affect the speed and capacity of oil spill responses within the Great Barrier Reef. In incidents such as the MV Global Peace oil spill in Gladstone, the availability and proximity of trained staff, equipment and access to the site allowed for a very rapid response (See Case Study: the Gladstone harbour oil spill). In other situations, the remoteness of large areas of the Reef, particularly north of Cairns, may make it difficult to rapidly deploy response personnel to spill sites. Additionally, it is not easy to transport spill response equipment to the spill site due to the limited transport infrastructure in far northern Queensland. The response to the groundings of the MV Peacock, MV Bunga Teratai Satu and MV Doric Chariot in the northern Great Barrier Reef posed significant logistic challenges due to the remoteness of these areas.

Given these factors and also the technological limitations of oil spill response in general, it should be recognised that a significant oil spill is likely to result in serious impacts to inter-tidal and coastal habitats on a regional scale in the short to medium term. Consequently, management efforts have focused on reducing the risk of incidents, and in terms of shipping activities, the Great Barrier Reef is provided with one of the highest levels of protection of any body of water in the world.

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