Page last updated at 05:34 GMT, Tuesday, 13 April 2010 06:34 UK

China ship 'seriously damaged' Great Barrier Reef

By Nick Bryant
BBC News, Sydney

File pic of part of Great Barrier Reef
Toxic paint from the ship has already begun killing off coral in the area

The Australian authorities have said a Chinese bulk carrier which ran aground off Queensland has caused widespread damage to the famed Great Barrier Reef.

The cleanup is likely to be the biggest operation ever undertaken there.

The Shen Neng 1 was refloated on Monday night, in a salvage operation brought forward because of the threat of bad weather and heavy seas.

The Australian government has indicated that a prosecution will follow because the ship ran aground in a no-go zone.

Divers have now had the chance to deliver an early assessment of the harm done to the reef, and have found coral damage and paint scrapings that stretch for more than 1km (0.6 miles).

The head of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority said there was significant scarring, and that the cleanup was likely to be the biggest operation ever undertaken on the world heritage-listed reef.

The damage might not have been so extensive had the Shen Neng 1 simply run aground and stopped.

Queensland State transport minister Rachel Nolan: "They've identified coral damage"

But the winds and currents meant that the 230m (750ft) coal carrier kept on grinding against a coral shoal for more than a kilometre during the week it was stranded, turning coral into dust.

The authorities are particularly worried about toxic paint that has been scraped off the hull - because it has immediately started killing off corals in the vicinity.

The paint is designed to stop things growing on the hulls of ships, and it could be weeks before the full extent of the damage is known.

The Chinese vessel is now in safe anchorage, having been refloated in a salvage operation brought forward because of the threat of bad weather.

It is believed that the operation was completed without adding to the two tonne oil spill which seeped from the vessel immediately after it went aground.

Map of Queensland showing where ship is stranded

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