With a bulk carrier leaking tonnes of fuel off its southeast coast and rough weather at risk of tearing the Japanese-owned vessel apart, the Indian Ocean island nation of Mauritius declared an environmental emergency and local residents “stuffed fabric sacks with sugar cane leaves Saturday to create makeshift oil spill barriers,” The Associated Press reports.
The spill threatens an ecological disaster that would affect corals, fish, and other marine life on and around the island, Al Jazeera writes.
“Our country doesn’t have the skills and expertise to refloat stranded ships,” Prime Minister Pravind Jugnauth said Friday, warning that the spill “represents a danger” for a nation of 1.3 million that depends on tourism and has been hit hard by the pandemic.
“Thousands of species around the pristine lagoons of Blue Bay, Pointe d’Esny, and Mahebourg are at risk of drowning in a sea of pollution, with dire consequences for Mauritius’ economy, food security, and health,” said Greenpeace Africa climate and energy manager Happy Khambule.
France said it was sending pollution control equipment from nearby Reunion Island, with President Emmanuel Macron tweeting that “when biodiversity is in peril, there is urgency to act”.
But by then, “satellite images showed a dark slick spreading in the turquoise waters near wetlands that the government called ‘very sensitive’,” AP says. “Wildlife workers and volunteers ferried dozens of baby tortoises and rare plants from an island near the spill, Ile aux Aigrettes, to the mainland.” And “residents and environmentalists alike wondered why authorities didn’t act more quickly” after the MV Wakashio, owned by the Nagashiki Shipping Company, hit the reef July 25, carrying 4,000 tons of fuel.
“That’s the big question,” said Jean Hugues Gardenne, fundraising manager with the Mauritian Wildlife Foundation. “Why that ship has been sitting for so long on that coral reef and nothing being done.”
AP says Mauritius has opened a police inquiry into possible negligence.
The oil spill is the first Mauritius has ever seen, Gardenne said. For days after the collision, “residents peered out at the precariously tilted ship as a salvage team arrived and began to work, but ocean waves kept battering the ship,” AP writes. “Cracks in the hull were detected a few days ago and the salvage team was quickly evacuated. Some 400 sea booms were deployed to contain the spill, but they were not enough.”
AP says Greenpeace “shared video showing Mauritius residents, to chants of ‘One, two, three!’ shoving the makeshift oil barriers into the sea, while crowds of children and adults hurried to make more.” But local conservation groups warned of a cleanup that could take a lot longer than people might expect. “The great urge for all of us is to ‘get on with it,’” the Wildlife Foundation said. “But currently we understand that it may be a waste of time to ‘clean up’ an area where oil may continue to flow in.”
Al Jazeera says Mauritius is known for its pristine beaches, and took in 63 billion rupees/US$1.6 billion in tourism revenue last year.