A ship that ran aground off the coast of Mauritius in the Indian Ocean this week began spilling oil into the country’s famous blue lagoons, sparking an environmental crisis in a small island nation that depends on its waters for fishing and tourism.
The hull of Wakashio, a Japanese bulk carrier flying the Panamanian flag, was found to be cracked on Thursday, Mauritian authorities said, 12 days after the ship ran aground off the island’s southeast coast with nearly 4,000 tonnes of fuel oil and 200 tonnes of diesel on board.
As the spill spread to the clear blue waters of nearby lagoons, Mauritius Environment Minister Kavydass Ramano told a press conference on Thursday that the country was facing an unprecedented environmental crisis. The nation relies on its pristine lagoons for tourism and food.
“This is the first time that we have faced such a disaster and we are not equipped enough to deal with this problem,” said Sudheer Maudhoo, the fisheries minister.
Mauritius, more than 1,200 miles off the eastern coast of Africa, is home to 1.3 million people, and the rainforests, dozens of miles of sandy beaches and mountains that dot its territory have long made it a famous destination for sea diving and tourism. The national territory also includes several small islands.
Mauritius welcomed nearly 1.4 million visitors in 2019, according to data provided by its tourism ministry. But the country, home to many rare or endangered species, has struggled to attract tourists this year amid the coronavirus pandemic, and environmental groups have warned it now faces one of its most serious ecological crises.
Happy Khambule, senior climate and energy campaigns manager at Greenpeace, said thousands of species in the lagoons were at risk.
“Once again, we see the oil-related risks,” Khambule said in a statement, listing them as “aggravating the climate crisis, as well as devastating the oceans and biodiversity and threatening local livelihoods around some of Africa’s most precious lagoons”.
More than 400 booms have been deployed to contain the spill, with measured success so far. A team of 11 also tried to secure and stabilize the ship, authorities said on Thursday, but had to be evacuated because cracks in the hull were deemed too dangerous.
Authorities have ordered fishermen to clear the area and residents to stay away from the beaches and lagoons of Blue Bay, Pointe d’Esny and Mahebourg as the spill spreads.
Nearly a dozen schools in coastal areas were closed on Friday and classes will be suspended until early next week, authorities said.
The Wakashio, a 984-foot-long ship built in 2007, according to the Marine Traffic tracking service, was en route to Brazil from China when it ran aground on July 25 near Pointe d’Esny, more one mile from shore. of Mauritius. The crew was rescued and the vessel remained at sea for almost two weeks as authorities deployed a 500m long fence around the vessel and hundreds of booms. They initially said that no spills had been detected.
But on Thursday, the Environment Ministry said in a statement that a leak had emerged, and footage shared on social media and by local media showed a dark oily substance pouring out of a crack in the ship’s hull. .
Wakashio’s owning company, Nagashiki Shipping, said in a statement that “bad weather and constant pounding” had breached the hull, and promised “to protect the marine environment and prevent further pollution”.
It was unclear whether the company planned to pay for cleanup efforts or offer compensation for damages. A company representative did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
An oil spill in Russia this year had catastrophic consequences for the environment. More than 20,000 tonnes of diesel spilled into a river in northeastern Siberia in one of the largest oil spills in modern Russian history.
And off the coast of Yemen, a decaying supertanker risks spilling a million barrels of crude oil into the Red Sea if not secured, the United Nations has warned.