Contact: Alyson Matley            FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE:


The University of Miami has agreed to pay the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration nearly $4 million in damages and civil penalties for the 1994 grounding of the R/V Columbus Iselin in the Looe Key National Marine Sanctuary. The settlement clears the way for structural and ecological restoration at Looe Key to repair the damaged coral reef habitat, the Commerce Department announced today.

The final damage settlement of over $3.7 million is in addition to a $200,000 civil penalty paid by the University in May. It includes over $860,000 in payments transferred to NOAA during earlier negotiations to cover emergency restoration and damage assessment costs. The settlement amount is based on the extent of injuries created by the vessel when it ran aground and includes funding to restore these nationally treasured reefs.

"NOAA is anxious to restore these coral reefs in the nation's largest living reef tract so that the American public can continue to benefit from these unique natural resources. The inclusion of funding in the settlement for grounding prevention efforts in the sanctuary is an innovative approach to compensating the public for the interim loss of a healthy and productive coral reef," said Terry Garcia, assistant secretary for NOAA.

"We are very pleased that the University has settled this case so we can begin the process of restoring this critically important reef," said Billy Causey, superintendent of the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary.

The Columbus Iselinan aground on the western portion of Looe Key reef around midnight on Aug. 10, 1994. It remained hard aground for two days while Coast Guard officials, with assistance from NOAA, coordinated its safe removal from the reef. The grounding injured four reef spurs in the Looe Key National Marine Sanctuary, one of the best developed spur and groove formations within the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. At the time of the grounding, the 155-foot oceanographic research vessel was owned and operated by the University of Miami at Coral Gables, Fla. The impact of the grounding, and the subsequent shifting of the vessel while it remained aground, resulted in severe physical damage to the reef framework, altering the complex topography of these critical habitats. In the process, large numbers of corals, sponges, sea fans and other reef biota were either killed or displaced from the reef. In addition, the grinding of the ship's hull created massive volumes of shifting reef rubble that buried many animals and threatened to injure others during storms.

Under the National Marine Sanctuaries Act, NOAA sought compensation from the University for response costs and nature resource damages, including compensation to restore the injured sanctuary resources and for the interim loss of the resources pending their recovery. Prior to agreeing on the overall level of compensation, the University of Miami agreed to fund removal of rubble generated by the grounding of the Iselin, thereby removing the threat to the physical integrity of undisturbed nearby reefs. This unprecedented commitment by the responsible party to redress injury to Florida's reef tract resulted from early cooperation among the responsible party, the sanctuary and NOAA's Damage Assessment and Restoration Program.

Recovered funds will be used to implement a coral reef restoration plan for the impact site, which includes rebuilding the injured reef using quarried limestone boulders embedded in a concrete matrix. Living coral and other invertebrates will be transplanted upon the newly restored reef structure to enhance the rate of natural recovery. Restoration funds will also support the development and application of new techniques to address injured reefs, and to prevent future groundings in the sanctuary.

NOAA is also restoring reefs damaged as a result of other ship groundings off Key Largo, Looe Key, and Marathon. Scientists with NOAA and the state of Florida are currently working to finalize a plan to restore reef injury at the site of a July 7, 1991, boat grounding in Western Sambo Reef. That plan will be implemented using funds recovered as part of a $257,500 settlement among NOAA, the state of Florida, and the insurers of the Jacquelyn L. , the 54-foot vessel which caused the injury. Restoration actions will first stabilize the reef framework, onto which scientists will transplant new corals.

The Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary is one of 12 sites nationwide that protect marine and coastal areas of national significance that support unique ecosystems, commercial fishing, or habitats of endangered species, or are valued for their recreational, historical or aesthetic resources. NOAA, a Commerce Department agency, acts as trustee for sanctuary resources, which it manages on behalf of the people of the United States under the authority of the National Marine Sanctuaries Act of 1972.