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SYDNEY (Reuters) - Six Greenpeace activists boarded a coal ship bound for South Korea near Australia's Great Barrier Reef on Wednesday, protesting against the expansion of the rich Australian coal industry and its impact on the World Heritage site.
Environmentalists say the Great Barrier Reef, a popular tourist site worth about A$6 billion (4 billion pounds) a year to the Australia economy, is threatened by dredging, sedimentation and coal port and shipping development.
UNESCO will decide in June whether the reef should be listed as a World Heritage Site in danger.
The ship MV Meister was carrying thermal coal from Abbot Point in northern Queensland state, a port that falls within the Great Barrier Reef heritage area, and was still in Australian waters in the Coral Sea when it was boarded en route to Donghae in South Korea.
"They have established a peaceful occupation of the ship," said Georgina Woods, a climate campaigner on board Greenpeace's flagship, the Rainbow Warrior.
Activists launched inflatable boats from the Rainbow Warrior and boarded the coal vessel early on Wednesday. A letter was handed to the captain of the ship detailing their reasons for the occupation.
"Ordinary people will have to stand up to stop the expansion of coal exports and that's what Greenpeace is doing today," Woods said.
The Australian Coal Association, an advocacy body representing the industry, said the action was dangerous and irresponsible.
Coal is Australia's second-largest commodity, with exports increasing some 50 percent over the past 10 years and worth almost A$60 billion in 2011-2012.
"We need to ensure that our sector remains internationally competitive to ensure that Australia benefits from the sustainable development of its coal resources," Nikki Williams, CEO of the Australian Coal Association, said in a statement.
"The Australian people have not given Greenpeace a veto over its economic future."
Heralded as one of the seven natural wonders of the world, the 2,000 km (1,200 mile) Great Barrier Reef is home to 400 types of coral, 240 species of birds and 1,500 species of fish.
(Reporting By Thuy Ong; Editing by Paul Tait)