The two senior members of the crew of the Rena, a ship which crashed into a reef in New Zealand, causing the country's biggest oil disaster, have been jailed. The result has been welcomed by the shipping authorities.
The captain and navigator of the Rena, the ship that caused New Zealand's biggest sea pollution disaster when it ran aground onto an offshore reef last year, were each sentenced Friday to seven months in jail.
Around 400 tons of fuel oil spilled on Astrolabe Reef near Tauranga in October last year. The oil slick killed 2,000 sea birds.
Judge Robert Wolff of the Tauranga District Court handed out the sentences to Captain Mauro Balomaga and his second officer, Leonil Relon, both citizens of the Philippines. Both had pleaded guilty to operating a ship in a dangerous manner and attempting to pervert the course of justice by altering documents after the incident.
A preliminary report in March found that the Rena had taken shortcuts in an effort to meet a deadline to get to port.
The sentencing was welcomed by Maritime New Zealand, the agency tasked with overseeing shipping in the country. According to an email statement by Keith Manch, Maritime New Zealand's director, an investigation by the organization found that the two officers had violated fundamental principles of safe navigation and the disaster could have been prevented as little as 10 minutes before the crash; the reef was at this point visible on the Rena's radar as an echo reading, but it was first mistaken as another ship and then dismissed as a false reading.
“At this stage, there was sufficient time to make an effective alteration of course and avoid the reef,” Manch wrote.
Manch also criticized the pair for changing the ship's GPS log, computer and passage plan in a deliberate attempt to conceal their wrongdoing.
“This offending is also very serious in that it caused genuine confusion for investigators trying to piece together the events that led to the grounding,” he said.
“It is vital that when these types of events do take place, we can find out how and why they have happened to help prevent such an event happening again.”
Costamare, the Greek-based owners of the Rena, acknowledged the verdict in a statement.
“We will continue to meet our responsibilities, as their employer, to ensure their welfare and that of their families, as they complete their sentences,” the company wrote.
The wreck of the Rena is still languishing on the reef. It split into two parts earlier this year, with the stern section sinking and the bow section staying above sea level. The slow process of removing containers from the ship is still ongoing.
sej/pfd (AP, AFP)