Government of Belize Establishes that Reef is Alive and Not Property

posted (April 26, 2010) by

Fifteen months ago the Westerhaven was a reef-breaker in Belize.  On the night of January 13, 2009 the Westerhaven cargo vessel ran aground on the reef near Caye Glory as it was exiting Belizean waters through the English Caye Channel.  It damaged 6,000 square meters of pristine reef and according to the Department of Environment it caused $18 million US dollars in damages.  The government took the vessel’s owners to court in November and the Chief Justice issued his decision today.  Janelle Chanona was at the courtroom where she found that this was more than damage to property; it was the destruction of a living thing.

Deanne Barrow, Attorney General’s Representative,

“It’s no reason to scare off the shipping industry and yet it is a confirmation of the fact that Belize holds the Belize Barrier Reef in high regard.”

Janelle Chanona, Reporting,

“That was an elated Attorney General’s representative this afternoon following the Chief Justice’s decision that the Government of Belize should receive just over 11.5 million Belize dollars in compensation for injury inflicted to the Belize Barrier Reef when the ship, Westerhaven, ran aground on January 13th 2009, east of Caye Glory.”

Deanne Barrow

“I really appreciate the comments that the Chief Justice made about the importance of the Belize Barrier Reef and that the reef is part of Belize’s national patrimony and can’t be sacrificed to commercial interests.”

Janelle Chanona

Weterhaven before groundingThe orders of the CJ are that $11,510,000 plus an interest of 3% per year since January 14th, is to be paid for environmental and ecological loss while nine thousand forty seven dollars are to go jointly to the Coast Guard, Fisheries Department and the Department of the Environment for expenses incurred during immediate response to the grounding.  But while the Government is seeing dollar bills, the Westerhaven’s attorneys are foreseeing the possibility of an appeal.

The Westerhaven had accepted liability for the injury to the reef, claiming that under the International Maritime Organization Convention of 1976, there was a limitation on that liability.  Belmopan had asked the court to award more than 31 million dollars, but the Westerhaven’s estimates were in the neighbourhood of two million as per the Convention’s Articles.  Today the Chief Justice agreed with the Government even though he ended up using his own financial formula to arrive at the eleven point five million dollar award.

Darrell Bradley, Attorney for Westerhaven

“We do think there’s strong merit in saying that the limitation defence did apply in this particular claim.”

Janelle Chanona

“So that would be the possible ground for an appeal in your eyes?”

Darrell Bradley, Attorney for Westerhaven

“Well that’s really the essential issue in the particular claim.  We of course differ with the Chief Justice’s view that this type of loss is something sui generis as he has said.  We think that the purpose of the limitation treaty was to encompass all types of claims not withstanding the fact that it related to environmental loss, oil pollution or what have you…once it’s an accident caused as the result of the operation of a ship, that’s covered by the treaty.  That’s really what our position was.”

Janelle Chanona

So what message does the multi-million dollar award send to the International Shipping community?

Major Lloyd Jones, Former Ports Commissioner

“I know that some people from the very first instance when we arrested Westerhaven and then Carib Mariner, some people were trying to imply that the way in which we were conducting ourselves would somehow drive away international shipping, which is absolute nonsense.”

Janelle Chanona

According to Former Ports Commissioner Major Lloyd Jones, ship captains simply need to conform to professional guidelines and protocols.

Major Lloyd Jones

“In this instance case there was a clear case of negligence.  The master conducted himself, in my view, shamelessly.  He adhered to absolutely no kind of standards at all.  Now in some instances were there is equipment failure for example or weather becomes foul or the aids to navigation, and you heard the Chief Justice mention that he hopes the Government would take some of this money to improve maritime safety.  But in the event that the aids to navigation fail, then you couldn’t lay all the blame on the crew.  So it all depends on the circumstances but I think that people who show a glaring disregard for professionalism and concern for our environment and navigational safety ought to feel the full weight of the law.”

Janelle Chanona

Today’s award is the largest in this type of litigation and one hailed by the environmental community.

Melanie McField, Marine Biologist

“I’m so happy to see it come all the way through the court system and to be fairly treated and settled.”

Janelle Chanona

Reef expert, Dr.  Melanie McField, hopes the cash will be used to keep important environmental initiatives afloat.

Melanie McField

“I think a sizeable proportion of this should go towards restoration of the site, maybe not that site, but restoration efforts in general to other injuries of the reef, management.  We have all these marine protected areas that are fully staffed and not managed to their full capacity…I think the fisheries budget was just cut in this new budget.  Those types of things could be beefed up using some of this money.”

Janelle Chanona

As for policy support, the Attorney General’s representative, Deanne Barrow, says legislation was passed in April 2009, which quantifies the injury caused to the reef per square meter.

Deanne Barrow

“It was passed after this one and it was passed after Carib Mariner, the two major grounding events so there has been some response from the legislature…which we have to look at and make sure that act really shore up the position and does what it supposed to do but steps are being taken.”

Janelle Chanona

According to Barrow, the next step is to call on a guarantee issued to the owners of the Westerhaven.  Costs were also awarded to the Government’s representative, to be agreed or taxed.  Reporting for 7News, I am Janelle Chanona.

At least one expert report estimated that it will take approximately five hundred years for the Belize Barrier Reef to recover from the grounding of the Westerhaven.