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Oil Spill's Damage to Marine Area Around Mauritius 'Substantial' and Maybe 'Irreversible,' Expert Warns

"There are very few such marine areas with such rich biodiversity left on the planet. An oil spill like this will impact almost everything there."

A man scoops leaked oil from MV Wakashio, a vessel that is owned by a Japanese company but Panamanian-flagged, which ran aground near Blue Bay Marine Park off the coast of southeast Mauritius on August 8, 2020. (Photo: Jean Aurelio Prudence/L'Express Maurice/AFP via Getty Images)

A man scoops leaked oil from MV Wakashio, a vessel that is owned by a Japanese company but Panamanian-flagged, which ran aground near Blue Bay Marine Park off the coast of southeast Mauritius on August 8, 2020. (Photo: Jean Aurelio Prudence/L'Express Maurice/AFP via Getty Images)

After Mauritius Prime Minister Pravind Jugnauth and local environmentalists confirmed that most of the remaining fuel on a cracked ship stranded about a mile off the island nation's coast had been removed, wildlife experts on Thursday reiterated warnings that significant damage has already been done by the vessel spilling over 1,000 tonnes of oil into Indian Ocean.

"Make no mistake, the damage that has been done already is substantial."
—Jean Hugue Gardenne, Mauritian Wildlife Foundation

"Today we can confirm that there is just a small amount of oil left on the ship. We are not threatened with an even worse disaster," Jean Hugue Gardenne, communications manager for the Mauritian Wildlife Foundation, a local nonprofit, told the Associated Press on Thursday.

"However, make no mistake, the damage that has been done already is substantial. There is considerable clean-up work that must be done urgently," Gardenne said. "The damage to the coral reefs may be irreversible."

"The amount of oil that was spilled in the area may seem relatively small, but it hit at a very sensitive part of our island," he explained. "Our coral reefs, the mangrove areas, a marine protected area, four small islands. All these have been contaminated by the oil."

Mauritius, located east of the African continent, is a "biodiverisity hotspot" and its surrounding waters are home to 1,700 species. The oil spill occurred "near two environmentally protected marine ecosystems and the Blue Bay Marine Park reserve, which is a wetland of international importance," BBC News reported Thursday.

"There are very few such marine areas with such rich biodiversity left on the planet. An oil spill like this will impact almost everything there," Corina Ciocan, a senior lecturer in marine biology at the United Kingdom's University of Brighton, told the BBC.

"It is not just about the light oil slick you see on the surface of the water caused by the spill," Ciocan said. "There will also be soluble compounds from the oil that will dissolve in the water, a mousse-like layer underneath the surface of the water, and then very heavy residues on the bed—so the entire marine ecosystem will be affected."

The MV Wakashio—a vessel owned by Nagashiki Shipping and operated by Mitsui OSK Lines, both based in Japan—ran aground on a coral reef near Mauritius on July 25 while carrying an estimated 4,000 tonnes of oil.

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The ship started leaking oil last week, and efforts to remove the fuel that remained onboard ramped up Monday amid fears that the MV Wakashio may break in two.

In addition to telling reporters Wednesday that "almost all the oil has been removed from the ship," Jugnauth said that his government will seek compensation from the ship's owner for the environmental damage.

The company, Nagashiki Shipping, said Thursday that "it felt its responsibility acutely and intends to take steps towards assessing compensation," according to Reuters.

Environmental advocacy groups across the globe, including Greenpeace and 350.org, have responded to the spill by demanding not only international aid for the clean-up efforts but also an end to fossil fuels.

Greenpeace Africa's communications director, Tal Harris, told the AP on Thursday that "we know this disaster will have significant effects on biodiversity in Mauritius."

"There needs to be a detailed and urgent survey of the damage done and a monitoring program to see what can recover and how quickly, and how much residual oil sticks around in the long term," Harris said.

Along with the environmental impact, the oil spill is taking an economic toll on Mauritius—which is notably dependent on tourism and was already facing difficulties on that front due to the coronavirus pandemic.

"It is really going to affect the communities down there, especially for the fisherman, the local guys that live there, you know that's how they make money from tourists," Willow River-Tonkin, who owns a kite-surfing business, told Reuters of the area around the spill.

"Taking them out to go diving, to go snorkeling, to go wakeboarding, to go see dolphins, and all that sort of thing you know, and all of that is going to affect it, if we don't get it under control very soon," River-Tonkin warned.

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