Ship accused of crushing coral [Cargo ship smashed more than 1,000 rare corals by dropping its massive anchor in prohibited area]

Precht, Bill Bprecht at
Fri Nov 22 16:04:27 EST 2002

        m Beach Post, 11/2202)
Date: Fri, 22 Nov 2002 13:46:29 -0600
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Ship accused of crushing coral

   By Marc Caputo
      Staff Writer

   Palm Beach Post

   Friday, November 22, 2002

KEY WEST -- A world-roaming cargo ship smashed more than 1,000 rare
at one of Florida's most pristine dive spots when, officials say, it
dropped its massive anchor in a prohibited area.

A survey of the 6,500-square-foot damage site, completed last week,
researchers with the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. The 15-ton
anchor flipped over corals that weigh more than 1,000 pounds and began
forming their star-shaped clusters before explorer Ponce de Leon sailed
over them.

"This is some of the greatest destruction of living coral I've ever seen
my life," said Harold Hudson, a biologist who conducted the survey. "It

For two decades, Hudson has surveyed some of the worst ship groundings
along the Keys -- the world's third largest barrier reef, which was
under federal protection in 1997.

Just last week, the 3,000-square-mile sanctuary received international
recognition as a no-anchor zone for large ships. So from now on, all new
charts printed anywhere in the world are supposed to list five no-anchor
zones around the globe -- including the waters around the Keys.

The designation was too late for the 853-foot-long MSC Diego.

Cargo vessel cited

On Oct. 2, a Coast Guard patrol saw a big blip on its radar screen smack
the middle of the Tortugas Ecological Reserve. The site, off the Dry
Tortugas 70 miles west of Key West, borders a sought-after dive spot
as Sherwood Forest, so named because the ancient corals look like
and leafy plants. It is considered so environmentally sensitive that
fishing is prohibited.

The Coast Guard crew boarded the MSC Diego and informed the captain that
the area was a no-anchor zone, according to a Coast Guard report.

The captain of the Panamanian-flagged vessel said he was "unaware" of
rule because the zone wasn't listed on his chart, according to the

The vessel was then cited for anchoring in violation of federal law.

Mediterranean Shipping Co., the second-largest cargo shipping firm in
world, owns the MSC Diego. Officials with the Geneva-based company
to comment. Its attorney did not return repeated calls.

The marine sanctuary's superintendent, Billy Causey, said the company
been cooperative, having hired divers to help right the corals
up" to save them.

The damage at the Dry Tortugas was not publicized. Causey acknowledged
the sanctuary doesn't want to damage its good relations with

The company faces two maximum penalties of $119,000 for anchoring
and ruining coral. However, it could be liable for millions of dollars
damages, Causey said.

"We don't try to crucify companies or people," Causey said. "Our job is
focusing on restoration as quick as we can for the U.S. public because
their coral, their sanctuary, that we're talking about here."

Declared sensitive area

Causey said last week's international designation of the sanctuary as
a "Particularly Sensitive Sea Area" should help prevent damage like that
caused by the MSC Diego. The initiative was pushed by the International
Maritime Organization, a United Nations division.

"Now, there are really no excuses for things like this," Causey said.
literally puts us on the global map."

It's a necessity, Causey said, considering that 40 percent of all global
shipping traffic flows through the Florida Straits between Key West and
Havana. In the case of the MSC Diego, the captain was heading to
Bahamas after departing New Orleans. Officials couldn't explain why the
ship was anchored for about three days before it was spotted by the

All along, the anchor skipped along the bottom while the giant chain
links -
- weighing up to 100 pounds each -- swung in a windshield-wiper motion
wind and current shifted the boat.

The Dry Tortugas, instrumental in the Union's maritime strategy in the
Civil War, has long been a spot for container ships to anchor and await
instructions on how to proceed.

All along, the bordering reefs have been a nuisance for ships. But it's
only benefited Florida and the Keys. In the 19th century, Key West
one of the wealthiest cites in the nation by salvaging vessels wrecked
the reef.

Today, the reef provides a prime tourist destination for thousands of
divers flocking to the area known as the "rain forests of the ocean."
Corals, which are invertebrates, take years to grow, especially if they
form external skeletons as with brain, star and elkhorn corals. They can
only exist in warm, clean waters.

Those conditions don't always exist off the Keys, where scientists have
documented diseases linked to runoff from Palm Beach County sugar farms
Keys septic tanks. As a result, average coral cover decreased from 10
percent of the sanctuary to 6.5 percent from 1996 to 2000.

The spot where the MSC Diego dropped its anchor had up to 60 percent
coverage. One reason: There's little pollution and fewer divers to step
snap off and anchor to the coral.

The nonprofit environmental group Reef Relief, which led the charge to
the reef from anchor damage, says there's hope. Founder Craig Quirolo
coral stands off the Keys, decimated by the disease White Pox that he
discovered, are coming back.

Quirolo said the damage at the Dry Tortugas, however, might be

"We're talking about hundreds of years of life getting plowed up because
some captain wasn't paying attention or didn't know where he was,"

Still, marine sanctuary biologist Hudson said all's not lost. Dive teams
began flipping the corals right-side-up almost immediately after
authorities learned of the damage. In some cases, divers had to inflate
giant plastic bags to help lift the heaviest corals.

Until the MSC Diego's anchoring, the worst destruction along the reef
happened off the Lower Keys in 1997, when the 600-foot container ship
Houston ran aground in stormy weather, gouging 7,600-square-feet of

Hudson said corals there are starting to come back. But, he says, he
more accidents on the horizon -- even with the new international maps
demarcating the no-anchor zone.

"In the end, people make mistakes," Hudson said. "And regulations, sad
say, aren't always going to stop that. Unfortunately, it will probably
happen again."

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marc_caputo at

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