Mauritius Scrambling to Save Wildlife and Its Tourism Industry After Devastating Oil Spill

On Saturday, the Japanese oil tanker Wakashio that ran aground three weeks ago off the coast of the island of Mauritius broke in half. The Panama-flagged vessel was traveling from China to Brazil with no cargo, but it was carrying more than 4,000 tons of heavy fuel oil and diesel, of which between 800 and 1,200 tons have already spilled.  On Sunday, local Mauritian NGO Eco Sud warned of the risk of a second oil spill of 7000 gallons of the lighter, diesel fuel still on board as the two portions of the ship started to drift apart, according to Forbes Magazine. Unfortunately, oil has already reached pristine areas, including the Blue Bay Marine Park, a unique coastal wetland that is home to a diverse array of coral and fish species, mangroves, and endangered green turtles.

Why This Matters:  It is unbelievably challenging to clean up an oil spill of this magnitude — just ask anyone who stood on the beaches in Louisiana mopping up oil after the Deepwater Horizon spill.  The impacts of a disaster like this are long-lasting and those who are responsible must be held fully accountable.  This spill puts at risk the country’s tourism economy — nearly 1.4 million people visited last year before COVID halted it. How is it that 30 years later Exxon Valdez could happen again?

Hauntingly Similar

The Guardian reports that “Members of the crew have reportedly told police that the 58-year-old captain of the carrier was celebrating a birthday party on board and was not on the bridge at the time of the collision. Local coastguards made several attempts to contact the ship before it ran aground on 25 July.”  That is a very similar story to the Exxon Valdez grounding off Alaska in 1989.   According to the Guardian, the owner of the Japanese company Nagashiki Shipping said in a statement that the company is “deeply conscious of [their] responsibility as a party directly involved in the case” and will deal with compensation issues “sincerely based on applicable laws.”

Where The Oil Is Drifting

Volunteers are working hard to contain the oil.  According to The Guardian, ” [t]housands of volunteers, many smeared from head to toe in black sludge, ignored official instructions to stay away and strung together miles of improvised floating barriers made of straw in a desperate attempt to hold back the oily tide.”  Makeshift booms made of sugar-cane leaves, plastic bottles, and hair appear from satellite images to be ineffective at reducing the flow of heavy oil toward the densely populated town of Mahebourg.  And because of strong winds and currents that exist in that part of the island coming up from Antarctica, the oil is also drifting north into protected coves and bays that house many luxury five star hotels.

Poisonous Shock To the System

“This oil spill occurred in one of, if not the most, sensitive areas in Mauritius,” Vassen Kauppaymuthoo, and oceanographer and environmental engineer reportedly told Reuters. “We are talking of decades to recover from this damage, and some of it may never recover.”   Jean Hugues Gardenne, of the Mauritian Wildlife Foundation, told The Guardian that “The conservation work carried out on Ile aux Aigrettes for nearly four decades is at stake.” He added, “The local communities relying on fishing to earn a living are heavily affected … Mangroves, corals and marine ecosystem are affected and the impact on tourism, a pillar of our economy, will be huge.”

What You Can Do:  The Mauritius Wildlife Foundation and Eco Sud, two local NGOs, are collecting and managing emergency relief funds.  And they need lawyers to help them receive the compensation they deserve. Email if you are a lawyer and want to help.

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