WELLINGTON (Reuters) - The captain and the navigation officer of a container ship which smashed into a reef off a popular New Zealand holiday spot were jailed on Friday for causing the country's worst environmental disaster in decades.
The two men, captain Mauro Balomaga and navigation officer Leonil Relon, both Filipino nationals, were jailed for seven months.
They had faced maximum terms of seven years imprisonment.
The men pleaded guilty to charges of operating the 47,230-tonne Liberian-flagged Rena in a dangerous manner, releasing toxic substances, and attempting to pervert the course of justice by altering the ship's documents.
The 236-metre (775-foot) vessel struck a reef about 20 km (12 miles) off Tauranga, New Zealand's biggest export port, in October last year, spewing around 300 metric tons (330.69 tons) of toxic fuel oil into the ocean, killing thousands of sea birds and fouling beaches up to 100 km (60 miles) from the reef.
"This was an event unlike this country has ever seen," said Judge Robert Wolff. He said the sentence took into account that the pair had already been vilified, and that they would be held in a foreign jail.
Local media reported that several people in a group of supporters for the men burst into tears after the sentence was imposed.
The court was told the captain had ordered the navigation officer to take short cuts to ensure the ship did not arrive at Tauranga late.
The government prosecutor said the crew had not complied with basic navigation practices, and there had been what he called "substantial deviations" from the approved course.
The ship has since broken in half, the rear section having fallen off the reef, while the bow section is still aground and wedged upright. Salvage teams are still removing containers from the vessel which carried 1,300 of the boxes, and salvors have recovered almost all of the remaining 1,000 metric tons of fuel oil on board.
The vessel's owners Daina Shipping, a unit of Greece's Costamare Inc., have also been charged with discharging harmful substances, which carries a maximum fine of NZ$600,000 ($451,000), and an additional fine of NZ$10,000 for each day the offending continues.
(Reporting by Gyles Beckford; Editing by Daniel Magnowski)