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Westerhaven runs aground on Belize Barrier Reef

GeneralWesterhaven 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.

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