Mauritius calls for aid in race to contain catastrophic oil spill

Photo credits by Sailors Tv

The island nation of Mauritius has declared a “state of environmental emergency” in what appears to be the worst oil spill and ecological crisis in the country’s history.

The freighter ship that ran aground on a coral reef late last month off the coast of Mauritius has leaked over 1,000 tonnes of oil into the Indian Ocean, with government leaders urging for help as the island nation prepares to brace for the “worst case scenario,” says Prime Minister Pravind Jugnauth.

Now, the Japanese-owned MV Wakashio has split into two, spilling tonnes of additional oil from the ships’ remaining fuel tanks. Experts had previously predicted that with time and bad weather, the vessel would eventually fall apart and add to the current damage being done to the Mauritian coastline. 

Even though the size of the spill remains relatively low compared to big oil spills of the past, the location of this particular incident is of greater concern. 

The site of the vessel happens to lie at a famous coral reef in Pointe d’Esny, an internationally acclaimed sanctuary and conservation site known for its rare wildlife. Nature reserves and once-pristine lagoons near the area have reported an influx of oil leaking into their waters, posing life-threatening risks to thousands of precious marine species. 

“We are starting to see dead fish. We are starting to see animals like crabs covered in oil, we are starting to see seabirds covered in oil, including some which could not be rescued,” says Dr. Vikash Tatayah, conservation director at the Mauritian Wildlife Foundation.

Despite warnings from local officials to stay away, thousands of residents have converged in a last-ditch effort to contain the spread of the spill. Images posted online showed volunteers making home made oil booms out of straw, sugarcane leaves and even human hair donated by residents of the island. 

“People have realised that they need to take things into their hands. We are here to protect our fauna and flora,” says Ashok Subron, an environmental activist out of the hard-hit town of Mahébourg.

In a country already struggling under the coronavirus shutdown of the tourism industry, the oil spill will surely bring about severe and long-term economic damages to the island nation. Mauritius is a world-renowned destination known for its environmental beauty and tourism, a substantial economic pillar that is responsible for nearly 1.4 million annual visitors and over 30 thousand jobs locally. The country had just recently launched a series of initiatives to boost tourism and revive businesses, but that may no longer be the case as even schools have shut down, citing health concerns over the strong odor of petrol and dead fish. 

Both France and Japan have sent experts and pollution control equipment to assist the Mauritian government, but even with clean-up efforts on the way, many say that the damage of the oil spill will be huge and long-lasting for the island nation and its surrounding environment.

The catastrophe of Mauritius is a grim reminder of the damaging effects oil spills can have on not just the local economy, but also countless wildlife and marine ecosystems. These incidents are more than just floating containment barriers, swift recovery efforts and oil-covered marine animals. Many of the consequences are extremely long-term and have yet to be discovered, says marine biologist Gerardo Peña with environmental group Ninth Wave Global. 

“Little is known about the long term impacts of an oil spill, most of the time because there are few studies that can last that long,” says Peña. “Depending on the type of oil spillage, it can take up 10 years or even longer to fully disappear from the environment. In the worst case scenario, the oil will kill everything.”

Marine birds are some of the most impacted marine species when it comes to oil spills. It makes it impossible for birds to fly and disrupts their nesting grounds and long-term migratory patterns. The BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico occurred nearly 10 years ago, but its long-term effects on marine bird species have yet to be understood. 

The severity of these environmental disasters also lies in the long-term consequences that marine ecosystems face as a whole. Oil contains chemicals that can bioaccumulate and reach considerably toxic concentrations in fish and other marine organisms, disrupting entire food chains and even making seafood unfit for consumption. 

“It isn’t just fish and birds that we should be concerned about. Think benthic organisms, those that actually play vital roles in supporting a wide variety of marine life,” says Peña. “We’re not looking at just food chains here, but rather extensive population dynamics and entire ecosystems as a whole that are being affected.”

As for Mauritius, the massive clean-up effort remains underway as officials continue to investigate why the ship veered off course. Pressure is also mounting on the government to explain why it did not act quicker to contain the spill that has now devastated and sent the entire island nation into peril.

“We’ve seen the trailer but not the movie yet, of the crisis to come,” says Dr. Tatayah. “It’s a disaster. Never in my wildest nightmares would I have imagined something like this.”

For The Yucatan Times Enviroment
Zachary Huang-Ogata

Zachary Huang-Ogata is a freelance writer specializing in science and the environment. His interests lie in sustainable resource management and corporate sustainability.