Mauritius battles devastating fuel spill
Thousands of Mauritians raced to contain a catastrophic oil spill swamping its pristine ocean and beaches on Sunday as frustration mounts over why more wasn’t done to prevent the ecological disaster.
The bulk carrier MV Wakashio has been seeping fuel into a protected marine park boasting unspoiled coral reefs, mangrove forests and endangered species, prompting the government to declare an unprecedented environmental emergency.
Attempts to stabilize the stricken vessel, which ran aground on July 25 but only started leaking oil last week, and to pump 4,000 tons of fuel from its hold have failed. Local authorities fear rough seas could rupture the tanker.
Japan said on Sunday it would send a six-member expert team to assist, joining France which dispatched a naval vessel and military aircraft from nearby Reunion Island after Mauritius issued an appeal for international help.
Thousands of volunteers, many smeared head-to-toe in black sludge, are marshaling along the coastline, stringing together miles of improvised floating barriers made of straw in a desperate attempt to hold back the oily tide.
Mitsui OSK Lines, which operates the vessel owned by a Japanese company, said yesterday that 1,000 tons of fuel oil had escaped so far.
“We are terribly sorry,” the shipping firm’s vice-president, Akihiko Ono, told reporters in Tokyo, promising to “make all-out efforts to resolve the case.” But conservationists say the damage could already be done.
Aerial images show the enormous scale of the disaster, with huge stretches of azure seas around the marooned cargo ship stained a deep inky black, and the region’s fabled lagoons and inlets clouded over.
Thick muck has inundated unspoiled marine habitats and white-sand beaches, causing what experts say is irreparable damage to the fragile coastal ecosystem upon which Mauritius and its economy relies.
Pressure is mounting on the government to explain why more wasn’t done in the two weeks since the bulk carrier ran aground.
The opposition has called for the resignation of the environment and fisheries ministers, while volunteers have ignored an official order to leave the clean-up operation to local authorities, donning rubber gloves to sift through the sludge.
“People by the thousands are coming together. No one is listening to the government anymore,” said Ashok Subron, an environmental activist at Mahebourg, one of the worst-hit areas.
“People have realized that they need to take things into their hands. We are here to protect our fauna and flora.”
Police said on Sunday they would execute a search warrant to board the Wakashio and seize items of interest, including the ship’s log.
Mauritius and its 1.3 million inhabitants depend crucially on the sea for eco-tourism, fostering a reputation as a conservation success story and a world-class destination for nature lovers.