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Another Oil Spill Threatens Ecosystems in Mauritius

Kate Byng-Hall reports on local outrage as an oil spill contaminates the beautiful ocean around Mauritius.

Photo by Jeremy Bishop

100,000 Mauritians out of the country’s 1.27 million-strong population have protested in the capital, St Louis, after an oil spill off the south-east coast which threatens the island’s rich wildlife. 

The march is an encouraging development in environmental consciousness in the country, as protestors chanted the slogan, “citoyen leve citoyen” (citizens wake up citizens).

In late-July, the Japanese-owned ship the MV Wakashio was shipwrecked at Pointe d'Esny in Mauritius, a small island in the Indian Ocean near Madagascar.  A fortnight later on the 6th of August, the ship’s hull split, leading to over 1000 tons of oil spilling into the ocean.  Protestors have criticised the Mauritian government for not intervening and preventing the spill in that two-week period, with some calling for officials to resign or even for the government to dissolve altogether.

An Ecological Goldmine

The oil spill occurred close to some of the most ecologically diverse areas in Mauritius – protected marine ecosystems and the Blue Bay Marine Park reserve. Thankfully, the oil narrowly avoided the reserve, but the wreck ended up lodged on a coral reef, damaging the coral and creating a bank of debris which will limit its growth.

The UN Convention on Biological Diversity has found that the environment around the island is home to 1700 species, including 800 types of fish, 17 kinds of marine mammals and two species of turtles.  These could be threatened not just by the oil itself, but by the toxic particles it will leave behind.

Oil contains soluble compounds which dissolve in water, and will have settled on the seabed after the spill.  As Professor Richard Steiner, an international oil spill adviser and marine biologist explains, “the toxic hydrocarbons released from spilled oil will bleach the coral reefs and they will eventually die”.

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This is a major concern due to the importance of reefs in the area.  Around 25% of all fish in the ocean depend on them for survival, as does the island’s tourism industry, which attracts around 1.3 million visitors in a typical year.  However, the toxic particles contaminating the sea after the spill will kill a lot of the coral, as well as crustaceans and molluscs, because they are filter feeders, and thus will ingest the toxins when eating. 

As Professor Steiner says, “the impact is likely to remain for years”.

The immediate effects of the spill are already apparent, as the bodies of 39 dolphins have washed up on Mauritius’ shores since the spill.  Several others have been found struggling in the slick.  It was these deaths which enraged locals to the point of protest.

The Clean-Up Begins 

Teams from the UN, France, Japan and the UK have united in a huge clean-up effort since the spill.  Helicopters have been used to transport oil out of the ship to prevent further leakage, and booms (structures to stop oil spreading) have been widely implemented.  Locals have also been proactive, making 80km-worth of makeshift booms themselves out of   cane trash – the leftovers from sugar-cane production.  So far, 75% of the oil has been contained or removed.  

Tragically, a tugboat helping to clear oil capsized after colliding with a barge it was towing, leading to three out of their crew of eight dying, with one still missing after four were rescued.  It just goes to show the lengths which citizens will go to, to try and save the marvels of their country.

While, in comparison to others, this oil spill is small, it is the huge ecological significance of the area in which it occurred which is so worrying.  Hopefully the popular protests in the country will force the government to invest in a thorough clean-up mission to save Mauritius’ remarkable environmental wonders from a disaster of human making.


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