13 Aug 2020

Mauritius oil spill: environmental crisis unfolds

On July 25, a Japanese-owned Panama flagged tanker carrying 4,000 tons of fuel ran aground off southeast Mauritius, within two kilometres of an important nature reserve. Read how our Mauritian Partner is at the forefront of the crisis response, and how you can help.

About 800 tons of oil spilled into the ocean © 2020 Maxar Technologies
About 800 tons of oil spilled into the ocean © 2020 Maxar Technologies
By Jean Hugues Gardenne & Lewis Kihumba

On July 25, the MV Wakashio – a tanker registered in Panama and owned by a Japanese company – ran aground off southeast Mauritius while carrying over 4,000 tons of heavy oil, lubricants and diesel. The disaster took place a mere two kilometres away from Ile aux Aigrettes, an island nature reserve managed by the Mauritian Wildlife Foundation (MWF – BirdLife Partner), home to important populations of  Pink Pigeon Nesoenas mayeri (Vulnerable), Mauritius Olive White-eye Zosterops chloronothus (Critically Endangered) and Mauritius Fody Foudia rubra (Endangered). The vessel was en route to Brazil when it hit a coral reef about three kilometres off Pointe d’Esny, in the vicinity of two important Ramsar wetlands – Blue Bay Marine Park and Pointe d’Esny wetlands – as well as Islets National Park.

The wreck lay for twelve days on the reefs before oil started leaking on Thursday 6th August . About 800 tons spilled into the ocean, threatening Ile aux Aigrettes, Mauritius' fragile marine ecosystem, and its pristine turquoise blue lagoon. Within days, the oil patch had moved further north and reached the three islets overlooking Mahebourg bay, Ile de la Passe, Ilot Vacoas and Ile au Phare – key habitats for endemic reptiles such as the Bouton and Bojer skinks, extinct on mainland Mauritius. This Indian Ocean island nation, home to over 1.2 million people, is heavily reliant on fishing and tourism, which has already been adversely affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. The oil spill has badly impacted its pristine lagoons, coral reefs and biodiversity, with images showing shorelines covered with black sludge, in what is turning out to be an environmental disaster.

The MWF is at the forefront of responding to this crisis. A key focal point of this intervention is taking precautionary measures to protect the Endangered and Critically Endangered flora and fauna of Ile aux Aigrettes. Twelve Mauritius Olive White-eyes and six Mauritius Fodies were captured and transferred to the National Parks & Conservation Services’ Black River Aviary facilities to be kept until the conditions improve. Similarly, 4,000 endemic plants from the island's nursery – including very rare species – have been transferred to the mainland and are being kept at the Forestry Services’ Mahebourg premises.

MWF evacuated six Mauritius Fodies (Endangered) from Ile aux Aigrettes © Ysmad

MWF staff have been using the Kestrel, the organisation’s ecotourism boat, to tirelessly support the oil pumping effort. Two tanks have been installed on the boat, oil on the surface of the waters along the Ile aux Aigrettes coastline is pumped into it. The boat then returns to the mainland to be emptied, and the process is repeated daily.  Additionally, MWF has rallied volunteers through a call on social media, with the objective of setting teams to help with the cleanup effort, once it begins.

"The response from our corporate donors and individuals has been fantastic", says Jean Hugues Gardenne, MWF’s Fundraising & Communications Manager. "The Mauritian population as one has rallied behind the cause and donations have been coming in since day one. We have also registered thousands of individuals who will help us once we can safely start the cleaning."

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To date, the risk of a larger spill is low. Most of the oil has been pumped out of the ship, but adverse weather conditions could stop the pumping operations and scatter the oil across the bay. In addition, authorities have been deploying booms – floating barriers to contain the oil – with France sending in equipment and technical expertise from neighboring Reunion Island.

Thousands of residents and volunteers are assisting in the mop-up exercises through booms fashioned from stretch nets, sugar cane straw and plastic bottles, sewn together with nylon thread to channel oil on the water. These efforts are paying off, as these booms hold up the oil and facilitate the pumping.

Threatened plants were evacuated from Ile aux Aigrettes' nursery by MWF staff © Martine Goder

“For the time being we are not risking volunteers in the clean-up exercises,” says Gardenne, “As we remain cautious about the toxicity of the products and the health risks to people exposed to it without proper protective equipment. We have had to fully equip our front line staff, and not risking ladies due to health concerns,” he adds. [Studies suggest women may suffer more severe effects from oil chemicals].

Gardenne issues a warning: “Many people are wading into the water in only shorts, and it is extremely dangerous. A couple of hours exposed to fumes can cause headaches, nose and eye burns and even dizziness.”

MWF is also looking at the impact of this oil spill on seabird communities in the vicinity, is carrying out surveys in other areas. Fortunately, there have not been many records of seabirds affected, with only one wader reported dead. Unaffected Red-tailed Tropicbirds Phaethon rubricauda have also been sighted flying over the region.

“The latest news is that the cleanup operation is starting, but the impact of this spill will definitely be felt  for a long time to come. The local communities relying on fishing to earn a living are heavily affected, whilst those residing on the coastline are constantly exposed to the fumes and vapour. The conservation work carried out on Ile aux Aigrettes during 35 years is at stake," concludes Jean-Hugues.

 

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