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NZ officers jailed over shipwreck

The captain and the navigator of a ship that ran aground on a New Zealand reef last year in the country's worst maritime environmental disaster were today each jailed for seven months.

About 400 tons of fuel oil spilled on Astrolabe Reef near Tauranga and at least 2,000 sea birds died last October in the grounding of the cargo ship Rena.

Judge Robert Wolff from the Tauranga District Court sentenced the ship's captain, Mauro Balomaga, and navigating officer, Leonil Relon, both of the Philippines. The two had already pleaded guilty to operating the ship dangerously and altering documents after the crash.

A preliminary report released by transport investigators in March found that the Rena took shortcuts to try to reach port by a deadline.

Maritime New Zealand, the agency responsible for shipping in New Zealand, said it was pleased with the sentences.

Keith Manch, Maritime New Zealand's director, said that an investigation by his agency found that the two senior officers had breached basic principles of safe navigation in their rush to get to the port. He said that even after a series of missteps, there was still a chance the men could have averted the disaster.

About 10 minutes before the 2am crash, he said, the reef appeared as an echo reading on the Rena's radar.

"At this stage, there was sufficient time to make an effective alteration of course and avoid the reef," he said.

Instead, the captain assumed the reading came from a small ship. After unsuccessfully trying to look for the ship in the dead of night, the captain dismissed it as a false reading and continued on into the reef.

The wreck remains on the reef. It split in two earlier this year, with the stern section sinking and the bow section remaining above water. Salvage crews continue the slow process of removing containers from the wreck.

www.maritimenz.govt.nz/(Maritime New Zealand)

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