Mauritius Declares Emergency After Massive Oil Spill From Japanese Tanker Threatens Coast

Last month, a Japanese-owned ship ran aground off the coast of Mauritius, causing over 1,000 tons of oil to leak into the sea. Last week, Mauritius residents “stuffed fabric sacks with sugar cane leaves” in order to create “makeshift oil spill barriers,” as CBS News reported earlier this week, and even cutting off their hair to soak up oil. Now, the Prime Minister of Mauritius Pravind Jugnauth is predicting the worst. According to Al Jazeera, the Prime Minister said, “The cracks have grown. The situation is even worse. The risk of the boat breaking in half still exists.”

Why This Matters: If the ship breaks in half, an already horrifying situation will be made worse, since there are still 2,500 tons of oil currently in the ship. This will deeply impact the Indian Ocean ecosystem, as the spill is near two protected ecosystems, as well as mangrove plantations. There will be reverberating impacts for Mauritius, both ecologically and economically, if these sensitive areas are further contaminated. As the U.S. learned with its oil spill disasters, these tragic events have long-lasting impacts — Alaska still feels the effects of the Exxon Valdez spill more than 30 years later.

Why Mauritius?
Why was the vessel so close to Mauritius to begin with? As Julian Lee and Adeola Eribake reported for Bloomberg, geography is part of the answer. They write, “Mauritius and the nearby island of Reunion lie on the shortest straight-line route between the Strait of Malacca, which links the ports of Asia to the Indian Ocean, and the southern tip of Africa.” This means that it is a very desirable route servicing manufacturing centers, research-rich regions, and markets. As such, global shipping lanes, particularly through Mauritius, have become increasingly crowded and putting coastal communities increasingly at risk for spills.
Many, as Forbes reported, are asking follow-up questions about how the spill occurred, whether or not it could be prevented, and what should be done now. According to Nishan Degnarain in Forbes, the satellite data “raises questions about why the vessel’s GPS tracking did not indicate it was heading towards an impact with land, or why local authorities did not intervene with sufficient warning, given the clear trajectory with the island.”

A Slow Start

The tanker ran aground on a pristine coral reef at Pointe d’Esny, “an ecological jewel fringed by idyllic beaches, colourful reefs, sanctuaries for rare and endemic wildlife, and protected wetlands.”   According to CBS News, many environmentalists and denizens of Mauritius are questioning the late response of the authorities. As Jean Hugues Gardenne of the Mauritian Wildlife Foundation told the AP, “That’s the big question, why has the ship been sitting for long on that coral reef and nothing being done.” According to CBS, “for days, residents peered out at the precariously tilted ship as a salvage team arrived and began to work, but ocean waves kept battering the ship.”

In response to this slow response, and despite the government ordering people to stay away from the spill, local volunteers started making makeshift barriers and cleaning up the beaches. As environmental activist Ashok Subron told AFP news agency, “People have realised that they need to take things into their hands. We are here to protect our fauna and flora.”  And sadly, Vassen Kauppaymuthoo, an oceanographer and environmental engineer, told AFP news agency, “I think it’s already too late.”

The Global Response

Already, other countries are working to help Mauritius contain the spill. France, according to the BBC, dispatched a military aircraft, as well as a naval vessel and technical advisors, to contribute to the containment efforts. Japan, from whose country the ship originated, shared that it would send a team to help as well.

The shipping operating company said on Sunday that it would “make all-out efforts to resolve the case.” And yet, as Al Jazeera reported, “some fear the damage is already done.” As environmental activists noted to the newspaper, “Thick muck has coated mangrove forests and unspoiled inlets up and down the coastline, exacting irreparable harm and undoing years of painstaking conservation work.”

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