Oil spills can have a detrimental impact on environmental systems. While disturbing pictures of oil-soaked birds and other wildlife may be the first images that come to mind when thinking about oil spills, the long-term environmental impacts can be even more troubling. When crude oil and other petroleum products leak into the surrounding environment they can have a catastrophic effect on the whole food chain of an ecosystem. Within the short term, oil can kill animals, plants, and a variety of other organisms. In marine environments, the impact of oil spills can be visually devastating. Since crude oil is thick and sludgy, it sticks to everything that it comes in contact with. Whether it is a bird, a rock, sea grass, or even soil, oil can have an impact on everything that it touches. Without a swift intervention, the toxic black tar left behind by oil spills can have detrimental long-term impacts on marine environments. The impacts can be even more severe on coastal regions that are known to have fragile ecosystems.
The Unfolding Disaster in Mauritius
On July 25th, a jumbo oil tanker carrying 4,000 tons of oil ran aground just offshore from the small island nation of Mauritius. Located off the eastern coast of Africa within the Indian Ocean, Mauritius is known for its pristine beaches, its world-renowned coral reefs, and its diverse array of endangered plant and animal species. However, 13 days after a Japanese oil tanker struck Mauritius’ coral reef, the massive vessel started to break apart, leaking toxic crude oil into the pristine waters. The oil appeared to have started to flow out of a gash in the side of the oil tanker that was created when the vessel ran into a coral reef. By Thursday August 6th, officials had estimated that 1,000 tons of oil had already seeped into the ocean and started to make its way towards the white-sand beaches. A taxi driver from one of the most severely impacted local villages recounted the disaster in an interview with a British media outlet. He said, “I am so sad. I’ve lived here all my life. This is a catastrophe for the region and I don’t think the sea will recover soon. The authorities did nothing for days. Now they are but it’s too late. I am angry” (Taylor, 2020).
The massive release of crude oil has already had a devastating impact on the island nation. A representative from Greenpeace Africa painted a bleak image of the devastation by saying how thousands of animal species were at risk of drowning in the toxic oil (Reuben, 2020). Moreover, since Mauritius is highly dependent on fishing and tourism, the entire economy has been put at risk by this one incident. Following the reports that the oil tanker was leaking fuel, a state of emergency was declared by Mauritian Prime Minister Pravind Jugnauth. Even though a state of emergency has been enacted, many environmentalists say that an initial period inaction turned a relatively minor incident into both an environmental and economic disaster.
Mauritius is located roughly 500 miles east of Madagascar in a region known as the Mascarene Islands. The country is famous for its rich biodiversity and lush mangrove forests that line the coastline. However, massive swaths of mangrove forest are already covered in oil along the southeastern portion of the island nation. The oil spill is also located directly adjacent to two United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) Ramsar sites, which are made up of internationally protected wetlands and a coral atoll. Both of these sites have been restricted from human interference because of their biodiversity. However, even though these regions were restricted from human activity, it appears that they may be catastrophically impacted by the oil spill.
In a televised speech shortly after the state of emergency was declared, Mauritian Prime Minister Pravind Jugnauth gave an ominous warning. “We should prepare for a worst-case scenario. It is clear that at some point the ship will fall apart” (Houreld & Miriri, 2020). While the Mauritian government had been attempting to stabilize the stranded vessel and extract the remaining oil before it seeped out into the water, rough seas prevented further extraction. Only five hundred tons of the remaining 3,000 tons were able to be extracted from the damaged vessel’s hull (Bearak, 2020). As new cracks have been forming in the ship, authorities fear that it will break into two separate pieces, which would dramatically increase the spread of oil.
The State of the Wreck
Former member of the Mauritius Parliament and a strategist for Greenpeace International Sunil Dowarkasing has been evaluating the damage that has been caused from the leaking ship. Dowarkasing described how the ship had three separate oil tanks, only one of which had been punctured and was leaking into the ocean. Dowarkasing says that there is a massive probability that the rest of the ship will end up being severely battered by waves, which has the potential to rupture the remaining tanks. There is little indication about how long it would take for salvage efforts to be able to remove the ship from the coral bed that it has struck. Some authorities have said that the ship may be permanently embedded along the coastline. Meanwhile, as rescuers have continued to grapple with the wreck, the Mauritian environmental minister has been pleading for help from the international community to assist with the environmental crisis.
The full extent of the ecological disaster is still unknown. However, the oil has made its way to the Blue Bay Marine Park reserve. Massive mangrove plantations and a series of popular tourist beaches have already been severely impacted. The Mauritian Wildlife Foundation has been working diligently to relocate plant and animal species from a nearby island that have been affected by the toxic oil slick. The oil has caused catastrophic damage to the pristine coastline and the marine ecosystem, especially in areas like the Mahebourg Lagoon. This scenic location that is known for its crystal-clear waters has been a site where the government has focused environmental rejuvenation efforts since 2001. Although, those efforts may now be permanently altered due to the extent of the environmental damage.
How did this incident happen? Throughout the history of the fossil fuel age, there have been an alarming number of high-profile oil pollution spills. The Exxon Valdez spill that occurred in Prince William Sound of Alaska, the Deepwater Horizon catastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico, and the Atlantic Empress oil spill that occurred just off the islands of Trinidad and Tobago are some of the biggest recorded spills in history. More recently, in 2020, a collapsed fuel tank owned by the Norilsk Nickel company created one of the biggest fossil fuel spills that has ever been experienced in the Arctic. In Mauritius, the oil spill has originated from the MV Wakashio shipping vessel, which is owned by the Japan-based Nagashiki Shipping Company. A team of international investigators have been investigating how the vessel ended up so close to the Mauritian coastline.
A global satellite analytics company known as Windward has been able to trace the path taken by the MV Wakashio, which was on its way from China to Brazil. Using their signature data analytics platform, Windward has been able to evaluate the speed and the trajectory of the MV Wakashio. The ship entered the Exclusive Economic Zone of Mauritius on July 23rd. Two days later, it struck a coral reef system near the island’s coastline. Given the path that led the ship near the island, authorities have questioned why the ship’s GPS system would have allowed the vessel to run aground. Moreover, after the ship entered the Exclusive Economic Zone of Mauritius, international investigators are also questioning Mauritian authorities about why nothing was done to intervene in the ship’s trajectory. In 2016, a different vessel ran aground in Mauritius without intervention from local authorities.
In a statement released by the owners of the MV Wakashio, a commitment has been made to take responsibility for the incident. They said, “Nagashiki Shipping takes its environmental responsibilities extremely seriously and will take every effort with partner agencies and contractors to protect the marine environment and prevent further pollution” (Regan, 2020). Even though the Japanese owners have issued an apology and a statement of responsibility, the real issue may lie in the crowded shipping lanes that surround Mauritius. During July, more than 2,000 shipping vessels passed near the Mauritian coastline (Degnarain, 2020). Mauritius is located within one of the world’s most concentrated shipping routes that connects Africa, Asia, Europe, and Latin America. Although, when evaluating the route taken by most vessels in the region, the MV Wakashio had been on course to collide with the island nation for several days. It’s unclear why action wasn’t taken to correct the course.
Renewable Energy Efforts
The tragedy of the oil spill in Mauritius has come at a time when the country has been moving forward with efforts to reduce its dependence on fossil fuels. While the MV Wakashio wasn’t destined for a Mauritian port, the incident has made the country’s policy makers even more focused on initiatives to bolster wind, solar, ocean energy electricity generation, and biomass waste technologies. Data collected through the country’s energy statistics conveys that the energy portfolio in Mauritius relies on fossil fuels for 85 percent of energy needs (Roopchund & Sahoo, 2014). While Mauritius is one of the smallest energy-consuming nations in the world, the country’s leaders have been increasingly focused on reducing dependence on imported fossil fuels. In order to meet future renewable energy goals, Mauritius has been partnering with the International Renewable Energy Agency and the Abu Dhabi Fund for Development to secure concessionary loans for renewable energy projects.
An Uncertain Future
As the Mauritian government has been robustly campaigning for a switch to renewables, it is unfortunate that the country has become the latest victim of a catastrophic oil spill. Given the country’s fragile ecosystem, environmentalists fear that this single incident could result in the extinction of numerous rare birds, reptiles, and other species of wildlife only found on Mauritius. The worst fossil fuel disaster in the country’s history will also have a severe impact on the region’s economy. With a heavy reliance on tourism from foreign countries, the country was already reeling from the impact of the coronavirus pandemic. With a total population of just over 1.2 million, Mauritius has been able to generate about $1.6 billion annually from tourism (Houreld & Miriri, 2020). The oil pollution disaster will undoubtedly put an even greater strain on local communities. France has already sent aid to the country, while Japan has also sent a team to assist with the cleanup efforts. As the international community continues to assess the damage, only time will tell how disastrous this situation will become for the health of the environment and the economy.
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Degnarain, N. “How Satellites Tracked The Fateful Journey Of The Ship That Led To Mauritius’ Worst Oil Spill Disaster.” Forbes.
Houreld, K., and Miriri, D. (2020). “Mauritius must brace for ‘worst case scenario’ after oil spill, says PM.” Reuters.
Ramasamy, A. (2019). “Mauritius: Renewable Energy in Favor of Fossil Fuels – A Glimpse of Current Development.” Africa Sustainability Center.
Regan, H. (2020). “The ship that leaked oil into pristine Mauritian waters could break in two. That would be an environmental catastrophe.” CNN.
Reuben, P. (2020). “Mauritius oil spill: Fears vessel may ‘break in two’ as cracks appear.” BBC News.
Taylor, M. (2020). “Mauritius calls for urgent help to prevent oil spill disaster.” The Guardian.
Roopchund, R., and Sahoo, P. (2014). “Mauritius Energy Security: Shifting from Fossil Fuels to Renewable Energy Sources.” Mascareignes University.