Criminal charges unlikely over Grand Cayman coral reef damage

Criminal prosecution of any of the parties involved in the incident that led to severe damage of a large area of coral reef by a cruise ship anchor is unlikely, despite estimates that the cost of the damage could run to several million dollars. 

Environment officials are hoping that the three entities involved, including Carnival Cruise Lines, will see it as their corporate responsibility to assist the restoration effort currently being carried out by volunteers. 

The Department of Environment, using different statistical models on the economic value of coral reefs, suggested the damage caused in the Aug. 27 incident could be anywhere between $1.3 million and $14 million. 

The damage occurred when the Carnival Magic cruise ship was mistakenly guided by Bodden Shipping Agency pilot boats to anchor 650 feet outside the designated public port anchorage, dropping its anchor on a previously untouched patch of coral reef.  

Tim Austin, deputy director of the Department of Environment, said the wide price range shows how difficult it is to put an exact dollar value on natural resources.  

He said the figures are based on fines levied for damage caused to reefs in the Florida Keys, as well as international reports on the value of reefs to tourism, fishing and coastal protection. 

The Department of Environment was initially pushing for a criminal prosecution in connection with the incident, but Mr. Austin said that is now unlikely.  

He acknowledged that the Marine Conservation Law allows for criminal proceedings in such cases but said it would be a difficult, lengthy and costly process that may ultimately involve one government department, the Department of Environment, pursuing another, the Port Authority, which has overall responsibility for the port.  

Instead, the DoE is urging government to seek voluntary contributions from the three parties, setting a target of $2 million in donations, to assist the recovery effort. 

Carnival has denied any responsibility for the incident but has previously said it may be prepared to make a contribution. 

Mr. Austin said any money raised could be used to either help pay for the ongoing volunteer effort, or to bring in a dedicated coral reef restoration team to lead the work. 

The DoE has produced a report on the incident, which was presented to the ministry on Oct. 30. 

The Port Authority so far has had nothing to say about the incident.  

Calls and emails to Port Director Paul Hurlston on Wednesday were not returned. Mr. Austin said the DoE’s report attempted to assess the financial cost to the country of the damage done to the reef. 

He said the world association for waterborne transport infrastructure, PIANC, has estimated the cost of restoration of damaged coral reefs at $1,000 per square meter – a calculation that would put the cost of the Carnival Magic incident just shy of $1.3 million. A separate calculation, based on fines levied in the Florida Keys – which vary widely depending on circumstances – suggested fines for similar scale incidents ranged from $1.2 million to more than $14 million. 

Mr. Austin said the money generated from diving and snorkeling, as well as the marine life supported by a healthy coral reef system, contributes greatly to the Cayman Islands economy. 

“We hope that a sense of corporate and social responsibility will drive someone to step up and assist,” he added. 

Carnival’s spokesman Roger Frizzell was unavailable for comment on Wednesday, but he previously told the Compass that the company is in ongoing talks with government over the incident. 


Volunteer divers collect some surviving coral on the wrecked reef. – PHOTO: NINA BAXA


  1. Ahh the denial continues. I do believe that all 3 parties involved should just suck it up help get it sorted out and just be quiet. Of course no one will want to take responsibility its all a game of finger pointing to them. The Carnival Cruise lines do not care about our environment here they just care about the money they make when they come to port here. They charge large amounts for a tour on the ship and pay the local operators peanuts to take their guests on these excursions. The tour operators after working their tails off barely make enough to pay their staff and maintain their equipment. I do believe that part of the proceeds from any sales for tours on island sold on the ships should be put back into this effort, but I guess doing that would be admitting that they were at fault. But lets look locally. The ultimate responsibility lies in the pilot who guided that ship to the wrong location. It was obvious to even someone who does not do that for a living that that ship was wayyyy off target before the anchor dropped. Who was that person? Were they fit to do that job? Were they under the influence? Or was it just plain recklessness and negligence? Who knows, no one will admit that they are wrong. Damage of that scale should not be just thrown on the back burner. That could have taken a life that day not just done irreversible damage to what was a beautiful dive site in a Marine Park mind you, and is now just a pile of rubble.

  2. Maybe a Civil suit for the damage is in order.

    Carnival will never let it get to a civil court – the 15 Million may sound like a lot, but not in the context of ships costing hundreds of millions, and turnover in the BILLIONS!
    Carnival made a profit last quarter of 106 Million (that’s a Quarter, not annual) and yet they’re happy to let enthusiastic amateur divers clean up their mess for free.

    The figure is so trivial it is like a stone-chip on a car fender, fixed with a marker pen for a couple of bucks. It’ll cost them much more if the damaged reefs go viral on social media.

    And of course once it comes to court, insurance companies may well pay out – You’re not telling me that Bodden Shipping hasn’t got liability coverage?

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