• A ship that ran aground on a coral reef dumped around 900 tonnes of fuel oil in the waters off the south-eastern coast of Mauritius.
  • The incident happened on July 25, and on August 6, the Japanese ship began to spill oil from its fuel tank, prompting Mauritian authorities to declare an environmental emergency.
  • Oil sludge threatens Pointe d’Esny, Mauritius’ largest remaining wetland, and other ecologically sensitive areas such as Ile aux Aigrettes Nature Reserve, Blue Bay Marine Area and Reserves of Mahebourg.
  • Water currents appear to carry the oil slick north along the eastern seaboard, putting mangrove forests at risk.

Mauritius, envied around the world for its azure blue waters, alluring beaches and marine riches, faces one of its worst environmental disasters after a ship stranded on a coral reef and dumped around 900 tons of fuel in the sea.

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

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

The grounded MV Wakashio is leaking oil off the south-eastern coast of Mauritius. Image courtesy of Greenpeace Africa.

The vessel, flying the Panamanian flag, was originally 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 oil now contaminates the waters of Mauritius.

Over the weekend, oily sludge clogged the coastline, washing up on Mauritius’ pristine beaches 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. Ile aux Aigrettes Nature Reserve, Blue Bay Marine Area and Mahébourg Fishing Reserves are all near the spill site.

Coral reefs rising from the seabed are natural breakwaters that create shallow lagoons near the shore. They are hubs for marine life, providing shelters and nurseries for fish and other sea inhabitants. Contaminated water will have a direct impact on these reefs and lagoons, experts said.

The south-eastern coast of Mauritius. Image courtesy of Greenpeace Africa.

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

Mangrove clusters are also found all along the eastern coast. Water currents appear to carry greasy seawater north along the eastern seaboard, putting these unique ecosystems at risk. Images of oily residue crawling on trees adapted to salt water were already making the rounds on social networks this weekend.

The relative inaccessibility of some of these regions will make it difficult to systematically assess the impacts. For now, efforts by government and civil society organizations are focused on damage control.

A preliminary satellite analysis conducted by UNOSAT / United Nations Institute for Training and Research. Disclaimer: The assessment has not yet been validated by field observation.

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

The government immediately recognized that it was struggling to contain the leak. “This is the first time that we have faced a disaster of this type, and we are not sufficiently equipped to deal with this problem,” Sudheer Maudhoo, Mauritius’ Minister of Fisheries and Marine said on August 6, 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 preparation has annoyed activists, 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 EcoSud Mauritius, a non-profit organization, told the BBC, adding that it was incomprehensible that the Mauritian government had still not complied. prepared for such an eventuality.

The ocean is the backbone of the Mauritian economy and a great draw for tourists from all over the world. Tourism contributed $ 1.6 billion to the economy last year, and the sector, like fishing, employs millions of people.

Mauritius is also an important stopover for ships crossing the western Indian Ocean. The section where the grounding occurred is an “innocent passage”, a maritime designation that allows ships to pass through a country’s territorial waters even when not moored there. For years, environmentalists have drawn attention to the danger posed by frequent maritime traffic near environmentally sensitive areas.

Drone imagery of the oil slick approaching the shore in the south-east of Mauritius. Image courtesy of Greenpeace Africa.

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

But the situation remains tenuous 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 make sure that 2,500 tonnes of fuel oil are emptied within the next two days. “

The satellite detected a potential extent of oil on August 10, 2020 in the 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 apologize profusely and deeply for the big problems we have caused,” Akihiko Ono, executive vice president of Mitsui OSK Lines, said at a press conference in Tokyo August 9. However, neither the operator nor the owner has published any estimates of the potential damage.

The effects on Mauritius’ marine and coastal ecosystems are expected to be far-reaching, but environmentalists are waiting for the dust to settle before launching to assess the damage.

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

Malavika Vyawahare is a writer 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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