Spilled oil from the bulk carrier ship MV Wakashio, that ran aground on a reef, is seen at the Mahebourg Waterfront in Riviere des Creoles, Mauritius. Picture: Sumeet Mudhoo/L'Express Maurice via Reuteres
Spilled oil from the bulk carrier ship MV Wakashio, that ran aground on a reef, is seen at the Mahebourg Waterfront in Riviere des Creoles, Mauritius. Picture: Sumeet Mudhoo/L'Express Maurice via Reuteres

Apologies for Mauritius oil disaster not enough

By Shannon Ebrahim Time of article published Aug 13, 2020

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As the oil slick damage destroying Mauritius’ coastline grows by the day, there continues to be inaction from the SADC region.

The oil slick has grown ten times in size over the past five days, and Mauritius still does not have sufficiently long oil booms available in the country to surround the vessel or contain the oil.

The homemade oil booms supported by tourist boats have been able to capture some of the oil as it moves down the coastline, but it is a fraction of what is urgently needed. “African solutions to African problems” needs to be turned into a tangible reality.

According to Sunil Mokshanand Dowarkasing from Greenpeace Mauritius, yesterday the oil slick reached Marine Park and Blue Bay, areas protected under law due to their rare biodiversity, and considered of international importance. The areas most severely hit are the mangrove plantations which is almost half the coastline.

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How does oil impact marine life? Oil spills are harmful to marine birds, mammals as well as fish and shellfish. Oil destroys the insulating ability of fur-bearing mammals, such as sea otters, and the water repellency of a bird's feathers, thus exposing these creatures to the harsh elements. Without the ability to repel water and insulate from the cold water, birds and mammals will die from hypothermia. Juvenile sea turtles can also become trapped in oil and mistake it for food. Dolphins and whales can inhale oil, which can affect lungs, immune function and reproduction. Many birds and animals also ingest oil when they try to clean themselves, which can poison them. Fish, shellfish, and corals may not be exposed immediately, but can come into contact with oil if it is mixed into the water column — shellfish can also be exposed in the intertidal zone. When exposed to oil, adult fish may experience reduced growth, enlarged livers, changes in heart and respiration rates, fin erosion, and reproduction impairment. Fish eggs and larvae can be especially sensitive to lethal and sublethal impacts. Even when lethal impacts are not observed, oil can make fish and shellfish unsafe for humans to eat. Pictures from dosomething.org & Vessel: Personal WhatsApp forward #wakashio #oilspill #mauritius #oceandisaster #indianocean #marinelife #sdg14 #lifebelowwater #conservewater #savetheocean #disaster #sustainableoceans #oceanlife #nature #ecosystem

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"It is never going to be like it was before as the whole ecosystem has been affected. The poison from the oil has reached into the roots of the seagrass and marine life and it will be impossible to remove it. We can now only try to mitigate the damage to the maximum," Mokshanand told Independent Media.

Mokshanand said that even if the government of Mauritius has not made a formal request for help from SADC countries, they should have stepped in to assist in the disaster.

Debris in Riviere des Creoles, Mauritius, Sunday Aug. 9, 2020, after it leaked from the MV Wakashio. Picture: Sophie Seneque via AP

As for the response from the Japanese shipping company Nagashiki Shipping that caused the whole catastrophe in the first place, their apology rings hollow. The owner of the ship, Akihiko Ono of Misui Osk Lines, which has spilled 1,000 tons of oil into the sea has said, “We apologize profusely and deeply for the great trouble we have caused.” But a mere apology for what is a major ecological disaster is simply not good enough. The shipping company should be underwriting the massive costs of cleaning up the oil spill and sending the necessary equipment before the rest of the ship breaks up.

A dead starfish is seen following leaked oil from the bulk carrier ship MV Wakashio, belonging to a Japanese company but Panamanian-flagged, which ran aground on a reef, at the Riviere des Creoles, on the Mahebourg waterfront, Mauritius. Picture: Reuben Pillay/Reuters

Mokshanand says that the six experts sent from Japan who have just arrived are merely in Mauritius as advisors and not even involved in the actual clean up operations. The Japanese government surely has pollution control equipment, oil booms and human resources that it could have sent to clean up the actual spill. This would have signalled more goodwill and intent than merely regret and a response team of six.

A rubber glove floats on oil as volunteers take part in the clean up operation in Mahebourg, Mauritius, surrounding the oil spill from the MV Wakashio. Picture: Beekash Roopun-L'express Maurice via AP

For two weeks nervous residents had watched the ship tilting dangerously, before it started breaking apart 13 days later. Why did the shipping company and the Japanese and Mauritian governments not take action then to prevent the coming disaster? Instead, day after day the waves beat against the hull of the ship until predictably cracks emerged that led to the spillage. Prior to the tanker running aground on July 25th, it was obvious that the MV Wakashio was on a collision course with the island as it had veered off course significantly. An early warning system should have been in place to warn of an impending disaster.

Spilled oil from the bulk carrier ship MV Wakashio is seen at the Mahebourg Waterfront in Riviere des Creoles, Mauritius. Picture: Sumeet Mudhoo/L'Express Maurice via Reuters

The waters off of Mauritius are one of the most concentrated shipping lanes in the world, linking Asia, Africa, Europe and Latin America. During the month of July over 2,000 vessels passed close to the Mauritian coast. Sadly vessel traffic has increased four fold in the past 20 years in these crowded global shipping lanes. In defence of the Mauritian government, they have never faced a monumental challenge such as this, nor a major oil spill. They were wholly unprepared for such a disaster and probably at a loss of what to do, but there will now be serious lessons learnt for the future.

Debris in Riviere des Creoles, Mauritius, after it leaked from the MV Wakashio, a bulk carrier ship that recently ran aground off the southeast coast of Mauritius. Picture: Sophie Seneque via AP

There needs to be far more serious interrogation of the responsibility of the shipping company for the costs of the clean up given its culpability and what appears to be gross negligence in cleaning up the mess they have made.

* Ebrahim is Independent Media group foreign editor.

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