Ship that ran aground on St. Croix's Round Reef towed away


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ST. CROIX - A ship that ran aground on Round Reef just outside Christiansted Harbor on Jan. 31 left behind damaged coral - and the V.I. Department of Planning and Natural Resources is recommending a change in how the channel is marked.

Meanwhile, the 218-foot cargo ship Commander, which freed itself from the reef during high tide Feb. 1 and then anchored near Protestant Cay, is now under way, being towed to the Dominican Republic per the plan of the owners, according to U.S. Coast Guard spokesman Ricardo Castrodad.

By press time Friday, the Commander was south of Puerto Rico.

The Commander is owned by Breeze Shipping LLC.

According to information that DPNR released Friday, the ship itself is registered in Panama. The DPNR provided information about the condition of the reef, as well as additional information on events surrounding the grounding.

Commander had come into Christiansted Harbor on Jan. 31 to drop off freight at the Gallows Bay terminal, according to DPNR.

"As it was leaving the dock, it started experiencing some steering difficulty," the DPNR statement said. "Shortly thereafter, the vessel ran aground on Round Reef (in the mouth of Christiansted Harbor.)"

Besides scratches, there was no major damage to the ship's hull, according to the Coast Guard. However, the ship's rudders were missing.

Castrodad said Friday that the Coast Guard is continuing its investigation into what caused the grounding, although it likely will take some time.

DPNR's Division of Fish and Wildlife was able to plot the route Commander took through information on marinetraffic.com.

On Tuesday, Fish and Wildlife conducted an initial site survey of areas of potential grounding, including on Round Reef at the entrance to the harbor.

DPNR's assessment revealed a pattern of damage that was 250 feet long by 64 feet wide on Round Reef.

Most of the substrate was dead coral, algae and hard bottom that "had been pulverized and flattened," according to DPNR.

A single Acropora palmata, an endangered coral, escaped damage because it was in a small channel that "escaped the crushing of the vessel's hull," the DPNR statement said.

According to DPNR, an estimated 40 coral colonies - comprising brain corals, mustard corals, fire corals and finger corals - stand a chance of surviving with triage and replanting.

"There have been many boat groundings on Round Reef over the years, as such the division is recommending to the U.S. Coast Guard to replace the current 'turning buoy' with a larger and more visible marker to signify the split in the channel," the DPNR statement said.

Although the Coast Guard previously said that DPNR would be assessing damages to the reef and would assess any fines or penalties for that damage, DPNR said on Friday that decisions on fines or penalties would be up to the Coast Guard.

Roy Pemberton Jr., director of Fish and Wildlife, said that because Commander is a commercial vessel, everything would be handled through the Coast Guard.

He said DPNR is in the process of sending its report from the assessment of Round Reef to the Coast Guard.

- Contact Joy Blackburn at 714-9145 or email jblackburn@dailynews.vi.

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