Mauritius grapples with worst environmental crisis in a generation

  • A ship that ran aground on a coral reef spilled around 900 tonnes of fuel oil into the waters off the southeast coast of Mauritius.
  • The incident happened on July 25, and on August 6, the Japanese-owned ship began to spill oil from its fuel tank, leading Mauritian authorities to declare an environmental emergency.
  • Oil sludge threatens Pointe d’Esny, the largest remaining wetland in Mauritius, and other ecologically sensitive areas like the Ile aux Aigrettes nature reserve, the Blue Bay marine area and the Mahébourg fishing reserves .
  • Water currents appear to be carrying the oil slick north along the east coast, putting the mangrove forests at risk.

Mauritius, envied the world over for its azure waters, alluring beaches and marine bounty, is facing one of its worst environmental disasters after a ship ran aground on a coral reef and spilled around 900 tons of fuel in the sea.

The island nation in the western Indian Ocean declared an environmental emergency on August 7.

The Japanese bulk carrier, MV Wakashio, struck the barrier reef off the southeast coast on July 25. He was stranded for over 10 days as his condition deteriorated; on August 6, a breach in her fuel tank triggered an oil spill.

The stranded MV Wakashio is losing oil off the southeast coast of Mauritius. Image courtesy of Greenpeace Africa.

The ship, flying the Panamanian flag, was from China and was heading for Brazil. It was carrying no cargo but had 3,894 tonnes of low sulfur fuel oil on board. This fuel now pollutes the waters of Mauritius.

Over the weekend, oily mud clogged the coastline, washing up on the pristine beaches of Mauritius and threatening many environmentally sensitive marine areas. The ship ran aground on the reefs of Pointe d’Esny, a Ramsar site and the largest remaining wetland in Mauritius. The Ile aux Aigrettes nature reserve, the Blue Bay marine area and the Mahébourg fishing reserves are all near the site of the spill.

Coral reefs rising from the seabed are natural breakwaters that create shallow lagoons near the shore. They are hubs of marine life, providing shelter and nursery grounds for fish and other sea dwellers. Contaminated water will directly impact these reefs and lagoons, experts said.

The southeast coast of Mauritius. Image courtesy of Greenpeace Africa.

“Thousands of species around the pristine lagoons of Blue Bay, Pointe d’Esny and Mahébourg risk drowning in a sea of ​​pollution, with disastrous consequences for the economy, food security and health of Mauritius,” said said Happy Khambule, an activist with Greenpeace Africa, said in a statement.

Clusters of mangroves are also found all along the eastern coast. Water currents appear to carry oily seawater north along the eastern seaboard, putting these unique ecosystems at risk. Images of oily residue crawling on saltwater-adapted trees were already doing the rounds on social media over the weekend.

The relative inaccessibility of some of these regions will make a systematic impact assessment difficult. For now, the efforts of the government and civil society organizations are focused on damage limitation.

A preliminary satellite analysis conducted by UNOSAT/United Nations Institute for Training and Research. Disclaimer: The assessment still needs to be validated by field observation.

After the grounding, booms were deployed to prevent the spill from spreading, but these proved largely ineffective. About 400 dams are now in place. Just over 500 tonnes of fuel was siphoned from the fuel tank, according to Mauritian authorities. The spill appears to be plugged, but the difficult task of cleaning the oil from the sea remains.

The government recognized early on that it was struggling to contain the leak. “This is the first time that we have faced a disaster of this kind, and we are not sufficiently equipped to manage this problem”, declared on August 6 Sudheer Maudhoo, Mauritius Minister of Fisheries and Marine. The Prime Minister, Pravind Jugnauth, called the next day for international support to deal with the crisis.

The MV Wakashio struck a coral reef at Pointe d’Esny on July 25. Image courtesy of Greenpeace Africa.

The authorities’ lack of preparedness has angered campaigners, who say this is not the first time a ship has run aground in Mauritian seas. “This is the third boat to run aground in five years,” Sebastian Sauvage of nonprofit EcoSud Mauritius told the BBC, adding it was incomprehensible that the Mauritian government was still unprepared. to such an eventuality.

The ocean is the backbone of the Mauritian economy and a big draw for tourists from around the world. Tourism contributed $1.6 billion to the economy last year, and the sector, along with fishing, employs millions of people.

Mauritius is also a major port of call for ships crossing the western Indian Ocean. The stretch where the grounding occurred is an “innocent passage”, a maritime designation that allows ships to pass through a country’s territorial waters even if it does not dock there. For years, environmentalists have been drawing attention to the danger posed by frequent ship traffic near environmentally sensitive areas.

Drone imagery of the oil slick approaching the shore in the southeast of Mauritius. Image courtesy of Greenpeace Africa.

On August 8, France transported military aircraft, equipment and technical advisers from its overseas department, La Réunion, about 230 kilometers (140 miles) west of Mauritius. Greece sends equipment to pump the fuel remaining on the damaged ship. Several other countries have also offered to help. On the ground, a slew of NGOs mobilized volunteers to clean up the sludge.

But the situation remains precarious due to the fragility of the ship. “At this point we are all worried that the ship will break in two,” said Mokshanand Sunil Dowarkasing, who works with Greenpeace Africa. “We have to ensure that 2,500 tonnes of fuel oil are drained in the next two days.”

The satellite detected a potential oil patch on August 10, 2020 at Pointe d’Esny Reef. Image courtesy of Sentinel-2/European Space Agency (ESA). Analysis by UNITAR-UNOSAT.

The vessel was operated by Mitsui OSK Lines and owned by Nagashiki Shipping. “We deeply and profoundly apologize for the big trouble we caused,” Akihiko Ono, executive vice president of Mitsui OSK Lines, said at a Tokyo press conference on Aug. 9. However, neither the operator nor the owner have released estimates of the potential. cause damage.

The effects on Mauritius’ marine and coastal ecosystems are expected to be significant, but conservationists are waiting for the dust to settle before setting out to assess the damage.

(Banner image: Oil is seen escaping from the Japanese bulk carrier, MV Wakashio. Image courtesy of Greenpeace Africa.)

Malavika Vyawahare is an editor for Mongabay. Find her on Twitter: @MalavikaVy

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(Editor’s note: This post has been updated with a map of the extent of the oil spill detected by satellite on August 10.)


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