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Captain in court over Great Barrier Reef incident

The Shen Neng 1 was more than 27 kilometers off course.
The Shen Neng 1 was more than 27 kilometers off course.
  • Chinese ship officers to appear in court after veering onto Great Barrier Reef
  • Ship was over 17 miles off course when it ended up in Reef area
  • Ship's chief officer faces maxiumum 3-year jail term

(CNN) -- The captain and chief officer of a Chinese-registered ship that ran aground on the Great Barrier Reef will appear in an Australian court Thursday, charged with damaging the reef.

The Shen Neng 1 veered more than 27 kilometers (17 miles) off course and ended up on a shoal in the Reef on April 3, prompting concerns of an oil spill near the world's largest coral reef system.

On Wednesday, the Australian Federal Police announced that they have arrested the 47-year-old Chinese master of the vessel and the 44-year-old chief officer.

The captain was charged with liability for the vessel. He faces a maximum fine of A$55,000 (U.S. $50,852).

The chief officer is accused of being on watch when the ship caused the damage. He faces up to three years in prison and a fine of A$220,000 (U.S. $203,411). Authorities did not disclose the name of either man.

The ship was carrying about 65,000 tons of coal to China from the Australian port of Gladstone when it ran aground on the shoal -- a combination of shell and sand -- near the southernmost point of the Great Barrier Reef, just north of Great Keppel Island.

Video: Calls for probe into ship grounding
Video: Oil spill threatens Great Barrier Reef

About 950 tons of oil were on board.

A small oil slick caused by the ship's grounding did not threaten the Great Barrier Reef after crews sprayed dispersants on it and surface netting helped to contain it.

Officials said the ship's captain had a 10-mile-wide channel to navigate through in an area where pilots aren't needed -- a relatively wide open section of sea, 70 kilometers (43 miles) off shore and away from the larger mass of coral most people associate with the Great Barrier Reef.

"He got 15 nautical miles (17.3 miles) off course, which is just outrageous," Adam Nicholson, a spokesman for Maritime Safety Queensland, said at the time.

Nicholson likened it to a car veering off a 2-mile wide road.

"We have thousands of boats moving in that same space every year and nothing has ever happened like this," he said.

The Great Barrier Reef is made up of roughly 3,000 individual reefs and 900 islands spanning over 2,600 km (1,600 miles) off the coast of Queensland in the Coral Sea.