Vessel Operator Nabbed for Damaging Resources in Johnson Reef Grounding

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The operator of a vessel which destroyed endangered elk horn coral colonies and other sensitive natural resources off the north shore of St. John almost got away.

A vessel, a 43-foot power boat called Heartbeat, grounded on the well-marked Johnson Reef on Thursday evening, July 25, yet was on its way to St. Thomas before V.I. National Park officials caught up with it.

“The incident was reported to us by a concerned citizen who saw it from shore on Thursday evening, July 25,” said VINP Superintendent Brion FitzGerald. “The vessel was trying to get off the reef and someone saw it and called a VINP protection officer.”

VINP officials launched a park boat and caught up with the operator of the vessel which had managed to get off Johnson Reef by that time, FitzGerald explained.

“We were able to get out there as he was heading to St. Thomas,” said the VINP Superintendent. “We stopped him, made contact and brought the boat back here. We had him leave it here tied up to the park dock to do an underwater survey to match any damage to the reef to damage on the vessel.”

While VINP’s investigation into the grounding is ongoing, officials have determined some of the damage caused by the late July grounding, according to FitzGerald.

“Basically the vessel ran about 400 feet across the reef damaging underlying reef structures, and eight elk horn coral colonies — which are listed as threatened on the endangered species list — were broken or pulverized and a number of other species of corals were  damaged, broken or torn from the bottom,” he said.

VINP officials have not yet decided whether to charge the vessel operator with criminal or civil charges, FitzGerald added.

“The next step is to decide if we are going to go criminally or civilly yet,” he said. “We are still conducting the investigation but we’ll certainly go after the cost for resource mitigation.”

While it is impossible to repair the reef, VINP officials will try to recoup the cost they will spend on assessing the reef damage, explained FitzGerald.

“You obviously can’t put this reef back together but we’ve had other groundings before where we used the process which allowed us to have the owners pay for the damages and pay for measuring those damages and pay for monitoring and recovery efforts,” he said.

It will be at least a few weeks to a month before VINP officials determine the exact extent of the damage to Johnson Reef from the grounding, FitzGerald added.

Johnson Reef is located off-shore of the Peter Bay point area on the island’s north shore and is marked with at least four bright yellow buoys that display yellow lights at night.

FitzGerald likened the grounding on Johnson Reef to the collapse of a gabion basket and other damages caused to VINP resources from a construction site in Estate Denis Bay, which is accessed via a road in Estate Susannaberg.

“It’s the same thing that we’re doing at Susannaberg,” he said. “That’s just something that happened on land and this happened on the water.”