Owners of ship Westerhaven must pay $11.5 million for damage to Barrier Reef caused by negligence

Posted: 27/04/2010 - 02:00 PM Author: Aaron Humes http://www.amandala.com.bz/index.php?id=9757

In what Chief Justice Abdulai Conteh called one of the most “technical” cases he has ever decided in his time in the Belize Supreme Court, the Government of Belize won its claim against the owners of Dutch cargo ship Westerhaven, which plowed into Belize’s Barrier Reef on the night of January 13, 2009, allegedly because of negligence on the part of its captain, Fritz Schroeder. 

Westerhaven agound on Barrier Reef. View of stern from water by Melanie McField on 1/14/09

The MS Westerhaven Schiffahrb GMBH& Co.  KG must now pay BZ$11.5 million in damages for running over an acre of pristine coral while on its way out of Belize, headed for Santo Tomas in Guatemala.

The Company was represented by Michael Young and Darrell Bradley of Youngs Law Firm, while the case for the Attorney General was argued by the mother-daughter team of Lois Young and Deanne Barrow.

Estimates of the damage were as high as BZ$52 million at one point, but when the case went to court in November the defendants conceded liability and pressed for a judgment of US$2.5 million – the amount they estimated it would cost to rebuild the reef with artificial coral.  They also argued that a 1976 Convention of Limitation of Liability on Maritime Liens, to which Belize is a party, would limit the amount the C.J.  could grant to the Government.

The Government on the other hand requested as much as $31 million, based on an estimate of value of some $5,000 per square meter of coral.

In the judgment, according to Barrow, the C.J.  stated that the 1976 Convention does not apply to injury to coral reefs, and therefore he was unlimited in what he could award in damages.

At the same time, the C.J.  thought that $11.5 million was “fair” based on a reduced measure of value, at about BZ$2,000 per square meter.  (The amount of coral damaged is estimated at a little over an acre, or between 5,500 and 6,500 square meters.)

Deanne Barrow told us that on the matter of rebuilding the reef, the idea was considered “not practical” because of the state of devastation the Westerhaven left in its wake; there was quite literally “nothing to build on,” she told us.

The area damaged is located about 32 miles southeast of Belize City, and is according to Barrow located within a prime protected area for Nassau Grouper spawning.

Reef Damaged by Westerhaven

Central damage zone showing total loss of reef structure with fisher for size perspective. Photo by Melanie McField on 1/14/09.

Expecting a possible appeal, the Government is seeking to enforce the BZ$13 million bond on the ship signed last February, weeks after the grounding.

In court this morning, we are told, the Chief Justice read a poem celebrating the value and beauty of the Belize Barrier Reef, long recognized as the second-longest unbroken chain of coral reef in the world behind its more illustrious cousin in Australia, and which demands Belize’s protection.

We were unable to reach either Young or Bradley tonight to find out whether an appeal will be considered.