Tuesday, 22 Sep 2020

Sea life around Mauritius dying as oil spill spreads

NAIROBI/PORT LOUIS • Mauritian volunteers fished dead eels from oily waters this week as they tried to clean up damage to the Indian Ocean island’s most pristine beaches after a Japanese bulk carrier leaked an estimated 1,000 tonnes of oil.

The ship, MV Wakashio, owned by Nagashiki Shipping and operated by Mitsui OSK Lines, struck a coral reef on Mauritius’ south-east coast on July 25 and began leaking oil last week, raising fears of a major ecological crisis.

Activists told Reuters on Tuesday that dead eels were floating in the water and dead starfish were marked by the sticky black liquid.

Crabs and seabirds are also dying.

“We don’t know what may happen further with the boat, it may crack more,” said clean-up volunteer Yvan Luckhun.

The ship, which is still holding some 2,000 tonnes of oil, is expected to break up, Prime Minister Pravind Jugnauth said late on Monday, warning that the country must prepare for the worst.

Tourism is a leading part of the Mauritius economy. The government, which declared an emergency last Friday due to the spill, is working with former colonial ruler France to try to remove the oil.

The spill has set back two decades worth of restoring the natural wildlife and plants in the lagoon, which started after the government banned sand harvesting in the area in 2000, said Mr Vikash Tatayah, conservation director at Mauritius Wildlife Foundation, a non-governmental organisation.

The fragmentation of the oil in the sea is expected to damage corals when the heavier particles in the oil settle on them, he said, adding that the steps taken by the government to prevent the disaster are also being scrutinised.

“There is some anger and some criticism from the civil society that the government may have taken too much time to respond,” Mr Tatayah said.

The ship had been grounded for nearly two weeks before it started leaking oil. There was no immediate comment from Mauritian government officials.

The Wakashio passed an annual inspection in March without any problems, Japan’s ClassNK inspection body said.

Mitsui OSK Lines said in a statement: “We will do our utmost towards resolving the situation quickly.” It did not provide details.

The company said it has sent six employees to the site and was considering sending more, along with transport supplies.

The International Maritime Organisation said it had joined efforts to tackle the spill by providing technical advice and coordinating the response. UN agencies and other world groups were also mobilising environmental and oil spill experts.

Meanwhile, Mauritius is seeking compensation from the owners of the cargo carrier.

Mauritius now faces widespread pollution, threatening the livelihoods of communities that depend on the ocean.

The island economy, which relies on tourists who flock to its white-sand beaches, is already reeling from the coronavirus fallout and may be further affected by the spill.

The government “will ensure that the insurance company of MV Wakashio compensates the state and any other entity or person affected by the calamity,” Mr Jugnauth told Parliament.

Thousands of Mauritians are helping to clean up the spill and prevent the oil from spreading further. And crews could finish pumping the remaining oil from the vessel yesterday, the marine resources ministry has said.

REUTERS, BLOOMBERG

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