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Mauritius Beyond the Surface

On July 25th, 2020, the MV Wakashio was 11 days into a month-long voyage to Brazil when it hit a reef in the southeast tip of Mauritius, in the Indian Ocean. The cargo ship diverted off course, crashing into a coral reef and unleashing a vast oil spill. The Japanese-owned vessel held 200 tonnes of diesel and 3,900 tonnes of fuel oil, with an estimated 1,000 tonnes leaking into the sea.

It is the location of the spill, as opposed to the size, that raises the most environmental concern. Unlike previous offshore oil spills, the MV Wakashio spilled near two environmentally protected marine ecosystems and the Blue Bay Marine Park reserve; a wetland of international recognition.

The spill left a 15-kilometre stretch of oil, with satellite images showing remnants between the mainland at Pointe D’Esny and the island of ile-aux-Aigrettes. The remaining oil on the ship’s fuel reservoirs have now been removed as there had been fears that the ship could break, spilling even more oil into the sea.

On August 7th, almost two weeks following the shipwreck, the Mauritian government declared the incident a national emergency, as the oil began to leak into a network of highly protected nature reserves containing some of the world’s rarest creatures.

Mauritius is a biodiversity hotspot with a high concentration of species unique to the region. 1,700 species of sea life including around 800 types of fish, 17 kinds of marine mammals and two species of turtles, inhabit the Mauritian marine environment. The island nation of 1.3 million people rely heavily on tourism, which has previously taken a severe hit due to the coronavirus travel restrictions.

Mitsui O.S.K Lines, MOL, the Japanese operators of the ship, pledged 1 billion yen ($9.5 million) for environmental preservation efforts and to shore up local fisheries.

A large clean-up operation was launched from the shore with many local volunteers. The cleanup measures included operating mangrove and coral protection projects and establishing an environmental recovery fund. In addition to this, the shipping company plans to provide further support necessary to Mauritius’ local fishing and tourism industries.

The major detriment of the spill has been for the coral reefs in the lagoon. They offer coastline protection from storms and erosion, are home to all individual sea life, and are the major pillars of Mauritian tourism, a huge part of the country's economy.

In September, nearly one-tenth of the population of Mauritius peacefully marched in Port Louis, the island’s capital, communicating the communal outrage over the disaster and the discovery of dozens of dead dolphins weeks after the spill.

Bodies of whales, turtles and other sea creatures have washed up on the shores of Mauritius, just five weeks after the spill. Fishermen told NBC News they had found melon-headed whales off the nation’s southeast coast. This oil spill is a severe threat to critical resources, including coral reefs, fish, and the countless men and women in the fishing industry.

Commonly associated with other oil spills, is the appearance of algae blooms in ocean dead zones. Coral reefs require clear water, free from certain nutrients that could cause a harmful algae bloom. To eradicate the presence of oil, cleanup operations use either organic fertilizers or chemicals to rapidly remove the visible trace of oil. However, this often causes long term harmful algae blooms, leading to serious and cascading effects on coral reefs. The growth of algae following an oil spill is a detrimental sign, as the fragile algae that live in clean environments are replaced by more opportunistic algae that can survive in polluted environments. This means algae can also bloom in environments where nitrogen and phosphate are added. These blooms are often linked with dead ocean zones due to the algae bloom consuming the oxygen in the water.

The soluble compounds on the water surface will dissolve with industrial solvents and with time. With the noticeable substances clean from the surface and rocks, a layer of oil will remain under the water, with heavy residues on the seafloor and reefs. The clean up process will help the beaches look clean but will leave the locals with the long-term consequences affecting entire marine ecosystems from these short-term decisions. The media will be gone by then.

In addition, some of the most toxic elements of the oil spill can build up as contaminants in marine organisms, later entering and poisoning the food-chain. Oil residues accumulate in sediments, particularly on the local shores. The impacts of this spill will be a devastating reality for decades, and will be felt years after the surface has been cleaned.

Oil spills bring devastating recognition to the fragility and importance of our oceans. They are a global indicator of the huge price being paid by the environment, wildlife and human communities for the ever increasing reliance on fossil fuels. The need to transition to alternative and renewable energy sources is at its peak.

Our hearts are with the thousands of species suffocating and drowning in a sea of pollution, the seamen who lost their lives and work, and the countless individuals affected by Mauritius' tourism, and food security and health.

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