Government agencies to sue for US$15 million for reef damage
The full extent of the damage caused when a cargo vessel went aground has been described as one of the worst ever to our reefs, the longest living in the world. And while varying figures on damages have been thrown around, the Ports Commissioner has confirmed that the Port will be suing the ship owners for $15 million, U.S. that is, for damages caused to the reefs due to negligence of the operators of the [Netherlands-registered] Westerhaven. Jose Sanchez reports.
Jose Sanchez, Reporting
Since the Westerhaven ran aground about 15 miles northeast of Dangriga on Tuesday night, several agencies including the Belize Ports Authority, the Department of Environment and the Fisheries Department have been coordinating their efforts to assess environmental damages as well as legal ones. Melanie McField, the marine scientist who recorded the damage firsthand with her underwater camera, believes that legislation specific to reefs needs to be established.
Melanie McField, Marine Scientist
“I think we need something specific for this like a Coral Reef Protection Act. We don’t have something really specific to the reef. In the Fisheries Act there is a clause that says we will not take, buy or sell any coral without a permit and that’s why the black coral harvesters get a permit. And they can try to use that; we can try to assess how many corals were damaged by looking at the size of the area and how many living coral animals are in an equivalent size just next to it so we could estimate how many corals were damaged. But the fine is really low. If we use that case, it would be like $500 a coral and that’s just crazy. So the other way of doing it is just the habitat loss and that’s under the Environmental Protection Act. And showing that there was negligence, which clearly there was negligence in not following your — in my opinion it’s navigation equipment we have now, someone should have been watching the equipment and they would have known they were getting close to the reef. That’s why I can’t understand if the boat was being monitored by the crew, I don’t understand how it could run onto the reef like that.”
Beverly Wade, Fisheries Administrator
“Currently, my staff is out there at one of the spawning aggregation sites — that’s a reserve — doing our annual monitoring. Unfortunately, this grounding is 500 feet from that site, so it is a sensitive area for us. They were out there and we got some preliminary reports from them.”
“Safe to say it doesn’t look good?”
“No, it doesn’t. I must agree with Dr. McField … its’ the worst grounding that we have seen in Belize, well, that I have seen in my professional tenure. It really doesn’t look good and it’s a highly sensitive area, as I said before. It’s an area where there is spawning aggregation and it’s an area where there are healthy reefs in that area."
The Department of Environment says it does not understand how this incident occurred. That is why they have sought technical assistance from their sister agency, the Fisheries Department.
“The Fisheries Department’s role is primarily to provide technical assistance to the Department of Environment. We have a cadre of well trained individuals who will now go about doing the assessment for the Department of the Environment and we are hopeful that we could carry that out early next week. We had planned to go out there this week but unfortunately, the weather has prevented us from doing so. So we’re basically going out there next week and we’re going to carry out a full assessment of the damaged area so that we could now present that report to the Department of the Environment and they could then inform their process of formalizing what the damages are and to inform their charges.”
“It’s about 100 meters long, little bit less that the width. So if you say 100 times 2,000, that’s $20 million.”
That rough estimate given two days ago by McField is close to the US$15 million in damages that the Ports Authority is currently filing for damages in the courts.
Major Lloyd Jones, Ports Commissioner, BPA
“The preliminary assessment has been done by the Department of Environment. I have spoken only a couple hours ago with Mr. Algeria and he has given me something in writing which says that from his preliminary assessment, the damage is estimated at a little over US$15 million. Our attorney has been instructed to commence legal action. We have filed an action in rem [determines the respective rights to property that has been brought before the court] in the Supreme Court and we’ve asked the Supreme Court for a warrant to arrest the ship. I believe that that has been filed by our attorney sometime before 3:00 p.m. today. I’m awaiting word from them as to how that went, but we foresee no problem in getting that Arrest Warrant.”
“The master was alone on the bridge at the time of the grounding, which is absolutely unacceptable. It flies in the face of accepted norms of safe navigation and we intend to pursue that matter. He alleges that he engaged the autopilot and we are wondering if that is the case, why did the alarm not sound when the autopilot diverted from its intended course or if it sounded, why didn’t anybody hear that alarm. I’m of the view that is certainly something that could have been prevented if only the crew had stuck to international norms with respect to with safety of navigation. If you were to look at the chart, there is absolutely no reason why that ship should have gone aground, absolutely none other than, like I said, inattentiveness or carelessness on the part of the crew. It is wide open waters, there are no navigational hazards other than the Barrier Reef on both sides, but you have clear open water for miles. So any mariner that is competent in navigation should have been able to navigate that area safely.”
The ship won’t be on the reef for much longer. A U.S. based team with tugboats is on its way to dislodge the Westerhaven from the reef on Monday. The ports commissioner says the ship will be impounded with its cargo. Our news team will accompany the agencies to see how it unfolds. Reporting for News Five, Jose Sanchez.
The current plight of the Westerhaven has raised many questions about maritime laws. There is a particular one that environmentalists keep asking. That is ... do the laws of Belize specify what distance a ship must keep from the reef when chartering through our waters? That is what News Five’s Jose Sanchez asked Ports Commissioner Major Lloyd Jones today.
Major Lloyd Jones, Ports Commissioner, B.P.A.
“Currently for a foreign vessel to visit Belize they need to file what is called a Notice of Arrival for the Port Authority. That tells us that the vessel is coming in. Belize is compulsory pilotage waters. In the case of a vessel coming to Belize City, that vessel would take on a pilot just outside of English Caye and that pilot brings it in and takes it out. That was done and thereafter the pilot disembarked and the Master then was left to do the southern transit on his own. That has been going on, as I far as I know, for many, many years and unless there are particular hazards, then the pilot would then disembark.”
“Currently, the law does not specify what distance you have to stay clear of our Barrier Reef and so on and certainly that is one of the things that we believe, in discussing with the stakeholders, that we might want to implement. It is called internationally as a ship routing system so that we say, as a matter of law, that if you enter Belize just for the sake of argument, you cannot navigate anywhere within 2 miles, 3 miles, whatever it is that would be recommended unless, of course, you’re entering port. That would then require ships to stay clear of a particular area. But even if we were to have that legislation, the responsibility to ensure that you don’t go within that area still rests with the crew and I think that is where were they are having some fundamental issues and I think that is something that we will certainly have to address.”
Westerhaven runs aground on Belize Barrier Reef
Marine scientist calls it “worst accident she has ever seen”
Chief Environmental Officer reports increase in ship groundings; “This situation is getting out of hand”
A Netherlands-registered cargo ship and her crew are not going anywhere, at least not today, after running aground on a section of the Belize Barrier Reef, reportedly causing about $40 million dollars worth of damage to the reef.
The ship was on its way from Belize City to a port in Guatemala Tuesday night when bad weather reportedly forced them aground on a section of the reef, estimated coordinates 17 degrees, 5 minutes and 1 second North latitude, 87 degrees, 59 minutes and 4 seconds West longitude, off Caye Glory.
The point of grounding is 32 miles southeast of Belize City, 15 miles south of English Caye and just east of the southern end of Southern Long Caye, just inside the reef.
Early estimates are that the Westerhaven, which had stopped off in Belize to deliver general merchandise for Sea Borne Marine of Houston, Texas, U.S.A., and was headed for Santo Tomas, Guatemala, leveled a section of “healthy” coral reef some 100 meters long by 100 meters wide (119.6 square yards long by 119.6 square yards wide), destroying a total estimated area of over 10,000 square meters (approximately 11,959.9 square yards). Full measurements will come tomorrow.
The general cargo ship is about 100 meters (328 feet) long and carries gross tonnage of 7,590 tons – a massive ship by any stretch of the imagination.
Scheepvaart Maatschappij Westerhaven B.V., a private limited liability Netherlands-based company, owns the ship and Belize’s Eurocaribe Shipping Services is the local agent. Reider Shipping, another Netherlands-based company, manages the ship, which was built in 2000.
A Eurocaribe spokesperson told us today that the owner of the ship was scheduled to arrive in Belize this afternoon to oversee the assessment of damages to the reef, and hopefully to hire a towing company to release the ship from its current position. Amandala was later told that flight delays would make it impossible for him to come today.
The ship is captained by one Fritz Schroeder and has a crew of fifteen.
According to Chief Environmental Officer Martin Alegria, there has been a recent increase in the number of ships running aground on the reef, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the largest reef of its kind in the Western Hemisphere (second largest in the world behind Australia’s Great Barrier Reef), over the last three years.
In fact, Alegria told us, a ship ran aground on the reef elsewhere in Belize just two months ago. That case is scheduled to go to court.
Alegria told us that the Environmental Protection Act, Cap. 328 of the Laws of Belize, makes provision for criminal charges against those who destroy Belize’s environmental treasures such as the Barrier Reef, which protects Belize’s coastline from the more damaging effects of hurricanes, offers a sanctuary for marine life and contributes heavily to Belize’s tourism product.
The Act, in Section 29, stipulates a fine of up to $200,000, or three times the monetary value of the damaged area, whichever is greater. Alegria says that in order for the latter fine to be enforced, the Port Authority, which has jurisdiction to prosecute these types of cases, must prove that the ship’s navigators were either negligent, or intentionally or recklessly caused the destruction of the reef. We quote the relevant paragraph from that section of the law below.
“Every person who- (a) intentionally or recklessly causes a disaster that results in a loss of the use of the environment; or (b) shows wanton or reckless disregard for the lives or safety of other persons and thereby causes a risk of death or harm to another person, commits an offence and is liable on summary conviction to a fine of not less than twenty-five thousand dollars and not exceeding two hundred thousand dollars, or, in the case of a conviction under paragraph (a), to three times the assessed value of the damage caused, whichever is the greater, or to imprisonment for a term of not less than two years and not exceeding ten years, or to both the fine (or the assessed value of the damage), and the term of imprisonment.” (Emphasis ours.)
Alegria expects that there will be criminal charges laid, but warns that many similar cases have been settled out of court, and that the Westerhaven’s owners can pursue this route. Already, information to Amandala first reported by Commissioner of Ports Major Lloyd Jones, who reportedly had received it from the Port Authority’s investigators on scene, and acknowledged, but not confirmed by Alegria and McField tonight, is that the ship’s captain is claiming that the vessel was on autopilot when she struck the reef – but that no one was keeping an eye on things. Amandala was unable to reach Jones at press time to confirm this.
As for getting the ship off the reef, Alegria said that the weather was not currently conducive to doing much more than taking photos of the ship above ground. Forecasts call for extensive rain for the coast over the next few days.
Renowned Belizean marine scientist Melanie McField recorded underwater images of the extent of the damage Wednesday afternoon.
McField reported: “This is by far the worst I have ever seen. I’ve never seen anything like this. It is unbelievable… The reef has been completely leveled, basically from the stern to (the aft of) the boat.”
She said that most of the damaged area was considered one of the few healthy areas in Belize’s much-abused reef system, and that some important habitat had been lost. The ship’s navigators and captains have no excuse: if they had checked their instruments they would have seen that they were too close to the Reef and maybe avoided damaging it, she told us.
McField estimates that up to US $20 million (BZ$40 million) in damage to the reef was caused by Wednesday’s grounding, based on an internationally accepted average of US$2,000 per square meter, she told us this afternoon.
Similar incidents took place in June of 2001 (when the Hybur Line’s Atlantis ran aground on English Caye) and in January of 2005 (when the Transfer rammed into Lighthouse Reef). In both cases, those ships took months to be removed.
Latest word is that a team from the Fisheries Department, Department of the Environment and the various conservation organizations led by the World Wildlife Fund will visit the site tomorrow, Friday, following up visits by DOE and the national Coast Guard on Wednesday and today.