SYDNEY (AFP) - The master of a Taiwanese ship has been charged with failing to take on a pilot to navigate Australia's Great Barrier Reef, police said Monday.
Environmentalists said the incident highlights the risks from shipping to the World Heritage site off the northeast coast.
The Australian Federal Police said the master of the "China Steel Developer", a 66-year-old Taiwanese, had been charged with attempting to depart Australian waters on January 1 without a pilot on board.
Pilots with extensive local knowledge are mandatory for travel through parts of the Great Barrier Reef marine park.
"The potential environmental, economic and social consequences could have been severe if an unescorted voyage had gone wrong," said the marine park authority's general manager Andrew Skeat.
"We would urge all commercial shipping companies to abide by the rules and understand they're designed to safeguard a critical ecosystem."
Police said authorities in Townsville detected the ship, which was reportedly carrying coal, shortly after it entered the compulsory pilotage area. They ensured it returned to land to take on a pilot.
The master was charged after the vessel returned to Australia recently, docking in Newcastle on Saturday.
Police said sentencing would be in Newcastle on Tuesday, with the maximum penalty for the offence a A$85,000 (S$89,726) fine.
Conservationists have long raised fears about the impact on the Great Barrier Reef, particularly from shipping, from Queensland's coal and gas boom.
In April 2010 the Chinese-registered coal carrier Shen Neng 1 foundered, leaking tonnes of heavy fuel oil and threatening an ecological disaster.
A catastrophe was avoided but the huge ship gouged a 3km-long scar in the reef and was stranded for nine days before salvagers could refloat it.
Environmental group Greenpeace said the latest incident showed that while there were coal ships going through the Great Barrier Reef there was the risk of serious accidents.
"The more coal ships we have travelling through the Great Barrier Reef, the greater the risk," said reef campaigner Shani Tager.
"Today's news shows that coal ships are still gambling with the future of our reef. Fundamentally accidents happen and short cuts like these put the reef at risk."