WELLINGTON, New Zealand – The captain and the navigator of a ship that ran aground on a New Zealand reef last year in what authorities have called the country's worst maritime environmental disaster were each sentenced Friday to seven months in jail.
About 400 tons of fuel oil spilled on Astrolabe Reef near Tauranga and at least 2,000 sea birds died in the Oct. 5 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. They had earlier been granted name suppression by the court, but that expired when they were sentenced.
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 in an email Friday that an investigation by his agency found that the two senior officers, who were responsible for navigating the ship, 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 2 a.m. 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," Manch wrote.
Instead, the captain assumed the reading came from a small ship, Manch said. After unsuccessfully trying to look for the ship in the dead of night, Manch said, the captain dismissed it as a false reading and continued on into the reef.
Manch said that both officers acknowledged making alterations after the grounding to the ship's GPS log, its passage plan and its computer to mislead investigating authorities.
"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 company that owns the Rena, said in a statement that it acknowledged the verdict against the two men.
"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 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.
Follow Nick Perry on Twitter at http://twitter.com/nickgbperry