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At least 100 000 people took part in a protest in Port Louis, the capital city of Mauritius, three weeks after an oil spill caused by a cargo ship ramming into coral reefs and days after at least 40 dolphins and whales were found washed up dead on beaches. The protesters are demanding an investigation into the oil spill and mass dolphin die-off. 

The government has said that it will carry out autopsies of all the dolphins and whales and has set up a commission to investigate the spill. Two investigations are currently being carried out: one by the police on the crew’s responsibilities and one by a senior shipping ministry official on what happened to the ship. 

Vets have only examined two of the carcasses, which showed signs of injury but no trace of oil in their bodies, according to preliminary autopsy reports. The autopsies were carried out by the government-run Albion Fisheries Research Centre. The remaining autopsies’ results are expected in the coming days, according to the fisheries ministry. 

However, Fabiola Monty, an environmental scientist, says, “We do not trust the government and the diluted information they’ve been feeding us regarding the management and responses to the oil spill.” 

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Eco-Sud, a local environmental group, adds that civil society representatives should be present during the autopsies and that independent specialists should be called upon for second opinions.

Mauritian officials said in a press conference that many of the dead species that have been washing up on beaches are Melon-headed whales, which are found primarily in deep, tropical waters. 

A Japanese-owned ship crashed into a coral reef on July 25 and began leaking at least 1 000 tons of oil on August 6, staining a protected wetlands area and a small island that was a bird and wildlife sanctuary. Thousands of volunteers worked for days to minimise the damage to the coastline, on which Mauritius depends for much of its revenue, creating makeshift oil barriers. Environmental workers also ferried dozens of tortoises and rare plants to shore, rescuing trapped seabirds as they went. 

According to 9News, another protest is being planned on September 12 in Mahebourg, one of the coastal villages in Mauritius that has been most affected by the oil spill. 

On the morning of Aug.15, a wrecked ship, longer than the Titanic, broke in two in the waters of Mauritius. The Japanese-owned bulk carrier, M.V. Wakashio, had rammed into the island nation’s coral reef barrier on July 25. In the weeks since the crash, it leaked almost 1,000 tonnes of fuel oil into the sea. Mauritius has since chosen to dump the bits of wrecked ship off its coastline, prompting controversy. 

Oil-laden waves crashed on the shore, and greasy residue settled on coral reefs and slunk into the mangrove forests that clutch the eastern coast of the island. At least 30 kilometers (19 miles) of shoreline is heavily affected.

The country is still trying to mop up the oil, but another problem now looms large: what to do with the broken halves of the ship? This week the government of Mauritius floated the idea of sinking the wrecked ship 13 km (8 mi) off the east coast, in open waters 2,000 meters (6,600 feet) deep. On Aug. 17, two tugs started this operation.

The move has proved controversial.

“Out of all available options, the Mauritian government is choosing the worst one,” Happy Khambule, Greenpeace Africa senior climate and energy campaign manager, said in a statement. “Sinking this vessel would risk biodiversity and contaminate the ocean with large quantities of heavy metal toxins, threatening other areas as well, notably the French island of La Réunion.”

The French minister for overseas departments, Sébastien Lecornu, who visited Mauritius on Aug. 16, also appeared unimpressed with the plan. Sinking part of the ship in international waters “is clearly not our preferred solution,” he said at a press conference on the same day. According to reports from the National Crisis Committee, which is spearheading Mauritius’s efforts, the plan to sink the bow was validated by experts sent by France.

The plan has also run into logistical challenges. The salvage tugs that are pulling the wreck are sailing under the Maltese flag. The island nation is a party to the London Convention on marine dumping; sinking the bow in open waters would violate the treaty.

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mauritius wrecked ship
An aerial view of the wrecked MV Wakashio ship after it broke apart in the waters of Mauritius on August 15. Image courtesy of Greenpeace Africa.

An investigation is underway into the cause of the ship’s grounding. Mauritian authorities took the captain and his deputy into custody, charging them on Aug. 18 with endangering safe navigation.

Mauritian authorities are already facing heat for their handling of the crisis. The ship grounded in the vicinity of three ecologically sensitive areas: Blue Bay Marine Park, Ile aux Aigrettes, a coral island, and the Pointe D’Esny wetland, which is a Ramsar Convention-protected site.

The government’s response has been criticized as tardy. “You have a ship with 3.8K tons of oil wrecked less than a mile from your beach … close to your national marine park [Blue Bay],” wrote a Facebook user, the Logical Mauritian. “You are an island that survives on your tourism and your beaches are the lifeblood of your tourism industry. You had that ship wrecked near your lagoon for 12 days … And it is obviously clear its spilling oil in your water. What have you been doing for 12 days?”

The vessel, owned by Japanese company Nagashiki Shipping, was carrying 3,800 tons of fuel oil. The Mauritian government, with international help, pumped out most of the remaining oil from the ship before it broke apart.

In the immediate aftermath of the oil spill, local communities appeared to be taking the lead in cleanup efforts. Fishers, fishmongers, boat operators, and volunteers from civil society organizations have been working to remove the oily sludge, solid waste and contaminated debris washing up on the shore.

More than 10 km (6 mi) of oil booms, floating barriers made from PVC that prevent the oil slick from spreading, were deployed by the authorities. In addition, makeshift booms were made from human hair, sugarcane straw packed into sacks, and leggings, all to help soak up the oil.

Almost 900 tons of oily sludge, oil mixed with debris, has been recovered from 14 sites.

As experts have flown in from around the world, including France, Japan and India, the nature of the response has shifted away from volunteer activities. Mokshanand Sunil Dowarkasing, a former legislator and Greenpeace Africa consultant, described the response as “haphazard,” and said he was not convinced that the onsite presence of more than 100 experts from several countries would solve the problem. “There’s so much to be done; I don’t expect these people to be doing it alone. They cannot succeed in doing it alone,” he said.

A cleanup and restoration effort led by French company Le Floch Depollution, which was engaged by Protection and Indemnity Club (P&I), the insurer for Nagashiki Shipping, is also taking shape. They are expected to seek the help of locals.

Environmentalists say they’re worried such plans will be limited to scooping the oil from the sea, a cosmetic cleanup that will not account for the true impact of the spill on fragile marine ecosystems. “I fear that they will do a cleanup for two to three months and then say goodbye,” said Vikash Tatayah, director of conservation at the Mauritian Wildlife Foundation (MWF). “What about the long-term impacts on marine life, on tourism on fisheries?”

Tourism is a mainstay of the Mauritian economy, contributing around 10% to the country’s economy and employing a quarter of the workforce. Thousands of people rely on fishing on the island nation.

The oil spill could also set back long-standing conservation efforts. Coral reefs are unique habitats brimming with fishes and myriad other marine life-forms. At the time of the spill, the corals and the fish life in the region were rebounding after coral sand mining was banned in Mauritius in 2001.

The MWF works on Ile aux Aigrettes, a coral island just north of the crash site. “It took MWF 36 years and over 300,000 plants to create such unique coastal forest,” Tatayah said in a Facebook post. He said he’s worried that contaminated underground water could kill the endemic plant species on the island.

There are also concerns that dumping sections of the wrecked ship in open waters could impact the whale pods that swarm the waters of Mauritius and neighboring La Réunion on their migration north from the frigid Antarctic waters during the southern winter. But experts like Nadeem Nazurally at the University of Mauritius disagree that sinking the bow will cause any lasting damage since it is not believed to have any toxic material in it.

He said he’s more worried about the coral reefs that he’s been studying for more than 20 years. Coral bleaching has periodically affected the reefs encircling Mauritius but some have fared better than others. “The corals of Pointe d’Ensy are more resistant to the effects of warming waters, they are sturdier,” said Nazurally, who is involved in coral farming in the area. He is currently unable to visit his field sites and said he fears the oily slime may be settling on the precious corals. The slimy layer can smother the corals and lead to an expulsion of zooxanthellae, the symbiotic microorganisms that live in the corals, and eventually bleaching.

Mangroves in the Bois des Amourettes, Rivière des Creoles, Anse Fauverelle, Deux Frères, Pointe du Diables and Grande Rivière Sud Est areas are already affected by oily sludge.

By the 1990s, Mauritius had lost much of its original mangrove cover. Since 1995, restoration efforts have gathered steam, with more than 400,000 saplings planted across the island. These saltwater-adapted tree species play a crucial role in protecting the coastline, recycling nutrients, sequestering carbon, and acting as nurseries for marine species. The government estimates that 70% of the country’s commercially important fish species rely on mangroves when they are juveniles. It’s not yet known whether mangrove saplings will survive the damage from the oil spill.

The impacts of the oil spill on these important ecosystems will have to be closely monitored, and restoration may happen over months if not years, experts say. “There is still a long way to go. It’s only the beginning of a long cleaning and decontamination process,” Tatayah said.

Featured image by: International Maritime Organization

This article was originally published on Mongabay, written by Malavika Vyawahare, and is republished here as part of an editorial partnership with Earth.Org.

Volunteers in Mauritius are working to keep leaking oil from a ship away from the island. In late July, the ship- believed to be carrying over 4 000 tons of fuel oil- ran aground on a coral reef off the Indian Ocean island. The oil spill threatens Mauritius, an island nation that depends heavily on tourism to make money.

Locals have been seen stuffing straw into fabric sacks to contain and absorb the oil, going against orders from the government, who has asked people to leave the clean-up to local authorities. Helicopters are attempting to move some of the fuel and diesel off the ship. Wildlife workers and volunteers rescued dozens of baby tortoises and rare plants from an island near the spill to the mainland.

The ship- called the MV Wakashio- ran aground at Pointe d’Esny, a known sanctuary for rare wildlife. The oil spill area also houses wetlands that have been designated as a site of international importance by the Mauritius Ramsar Convention on Wetlands. 

Mitsui OSK Lines, the operator of the ship, says that it tried to place its own containment booms around the vessel but due to rough seas, was unsuccessful. At least 1 000 tons of oil is thought to have leaked into the waters surrounding the island nation. 

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mauritius oil spill
The spill site on August 7, 2020 (Image: Maxar Technologies). 

Akihiko Ono, executive vice president of the ship operator, ‘profusely’ apologised for the spill and for the ‘great trouble we have caused’. He promised that the company would do ‘everything in their power to resolve the issue’. 

On August 7, Mauritian Prime Minister Pravind Jugnauth declared a state of emergency and asked the international community for assistance. He added that the country ‘doesn’t have the skills and expertise to refloat stranded ships’. 

A police inquiry has been opened into possible negligence but environmentalists and residents have asked why it took so long for authorities to respond to the oil spill.

France has sent a military aircraft with pollution control equipment from its nearby island of Réunion. Japan announced it would dispatch a six-member team to assist the French efforts.

Happy Khamule, climate and energy manager from Greenpeace Africa, warned that thousands of animal species were ‘at risk of drowning in a sea of pollution, with dire consequences for Mauritius’ economy, food security and health’.

Heavy winds are expected to exacerbate the oil spill even farther along the island’s shore. The Mauritius Marine Conservation Society and other groups have warned that the oil spill cleanup could take much longer than expected. 

This is a developing story. Follow Earth.Org for more.

Featured image by: Reuben Pillay/Reubsvision.mu/Via Reuters

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