MEXICO CITY (AP) _ A shrimp boat whose engines stalled in bad weather has been blamed for damaging 1,290 square yards of coral, one of the worst cases of damage to Mexican reefs in recent memory.

The boat ``Jorge Fernando,'' operated by the private Mexican fishing company Nemarza and Co., ground through coral in shallow waters that are off-limits to marine traffic near the beach resort Cancun, 800 miles east of Mexico City, local media reported Sunday.

Environmental authorities were searching for the boat, whose owners may be liable for fines of up to $65,000 and could be forced to pay as much as $1.5 million to offset damage to the reef if they are found responsible.

The coral reef allegedly damaged by the shrimp boat on May 4 was more than twice the size of the area hit by the Norwegian Cruise Lines ship Leeward in December 1997.

The cruise line paid $1 million in fines and damages after authorities determined the ship had set sail without a local pilot and run over a 460-square-yard patch of coral.

The damage payments are used to research and protect both damaged and undamaged patches of coral. However, experts say it may take centuries for some species of slow-growing coral to recover fully from such accidents.