Mauritius faces eco disaster from Wakashio oil spill

Aerial view of the containment operations site, off the coast of southeast Mauritius. Wakashio ran aground near the Blue Bay Marine Park in late July 2020. Credit: AFP via Getty Images

Mauritius faces its first environmental crisis as oil leaking from stranded bulk carrier Wakashio threatens some of the country’s most sensitive marine ecological sites.

Wakashio ran aground on a reef on the southeastern side of the island republic on 25 July 2020, close to the Point d’Esny Wetlands, the Ile aux Aigrettes Nature Reserve, the Blue Bay Marine Area, and the Mahebourg Fishing Reserves.

Although it was sailing in ballast, the vessel was carrying approximately 4,000 tonnes of fuel oil. About 500 tonnes have been salvaged from the ship, but rough seas have hampered the operations. “Due to the bad weather and constant pounding over the past few days, the starboard-side bunker tank of the vessel was breached [on 6 July 2020] and an amount of fuel oil has escaped into the sea,” the vessel’s owners, Nagashiki Shipping, said in a statement on 7 August.

So far, at least 1,000 tonnes of oil is estimated to have leaked from the ship, prompting the Mauritian government to declare an environmental state of emergency. “This is the first time that we are faced with a catastrophe of this kind, and we are insufficiently equipped to handle this problem,” said Sudheer Maudhoo, Minister of the Blue Economy, Marine Resources, Fisheries and Shipping department.

Nagashiki Shipping and Wakashio’s operator, Mitsui OSK Lines, have taken responsibility for the incident, and have promised to do everything in their power to resolve the issue.

“To protect the environment, we will do our utmost to recover the leaked oil, pump out the oil that remains in the ship, and remove the ship safely while co-ordinating with Mauritius and relevant Japanese agencies,” said Nagashiki Shipping.

Akihiko Ono, executive vice-president of Mitsui OSK Lines, said, “We apologise profusely and deeply for the great trouble we have caused.”

At the request of the Mauritius government, Japan will dispatch a six-person disaster relief team to help with removing the spilt oil, Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in a statement on 9 August 2020.

Nagashiki Shipping, in an email statement on 10 August, said that the primary focus at this time is reducing the effects of the spill and protecting the environment.

“The authorities have ordered two tankers, MT EliseMT Tresta Star and tugs to assist with the removal of the fuel oil from Wakashio. A hose connection has been successfully established with MT Elise, which is safely alongside, and the transfer of fuel oil is under way. MT Tresta Star remains on standby at the site,” said the statement.

Additionally, helicopters have been deployed to transfer containers of fuel oil removed from the site. The situation is being closely monitored by a team of specialists, in co-ordination with Mauritian authorities. The International Tanker Owners Pollution Federation is advising the shipowner, salvage teams, and the government. Furthermore, a tow connection has been established between the tugs and Wakashio to help secure the vessel, Nagashiki Shipping concluded in its statement.

France has also pledged its support by dispatching an aircraft, a naval vessel, and specialist teams and material from La Reunion, a French territory about 230 km southwest of Mauritius.

The Wakashio’s 20-member crew, hailing from India, the Philippines, and Sri Lanka, has been removed from the vessel and are in quarantine on Mauritius. A police inquiry into possible negligence by the ship’s captain has been opened, the Mauritian government said.