Wakashio oil spill highlights Mauritius’ fragile ecology
In August 2020, thousands of people – some estimates reached 100,000 – marched through the streets of Port Louis, the Mauritian capital. It was a remarkable turnout for an island with a population of less than 1.3 million.
One of the many signs carried by protesters read, “I’ve seen better cabinets at Ikea.” But the crowds had not mobilized for a narrowly political cause. Animating them were ecological issues.
A month earlier, on the afternoon of July 25, the MV Wakashio, a Japanese bulk carrier flying the Panamanian flag, ran aground on a coral reef about a mile offshore.
A little less than a fortnight later, the ship, which had 3,900 tonnes of fuel oil on board, began to dump its contents into the ocean. Although authorities siphoned off some of the oil, around 1,000 tonnes spilled over 15km of what is an internationally recognized biodiversity hotspot.
Mauritian waters contain 1,700 species, including 786 species of fish, 17 of marine mammals and two of turtles, according to the Convention on Biological Diversity.
Bands of volunteers quickly mobilized. They made improvised dams to protect the coastline, using materials such as sugar cane leaves, empty bottles and even human hair. Wildlife threatened by the spill included an endangered pink pigeon, endemic to the island, and dolphins, some of which washed up on the shoreline in the following days.
Although much of the oil was kept away from the shore, it still blackened beaches, covered rocks and damaged lagoons, rare sea grasses and mangroves. Fish in the affected area were found to have high levels of arsenic, which prevented local fishermen from selling their catch. Two weeks after the initial crash, the government declared a national emergency.
The incident highlighted something essential about Mauritius: its delicate ecosystem is at the heart of its well-being. Nearly 40% of plants and 80% of non-marine birds and reptiles are endemic. But only 2% of the island, large tracts of which were given over to sugar production in the 19th century, is native forest. And its wetlands are under pressure from tourism.
“The cultural identity of Mauritians is strongly linked to the sea,” wrote Khalil Cassimally, a prominent environmental activist, at the time of the Wakashio oil spill. “We are taught early in school that Mauritius was born from the sea – a mighty volcano erupted millions of years ago, creating a small island in a vast expanse of blue.”
Climate change also threatens Mauritius in various ways, although its own carbon emissions are insignificant. The rising ocean has reduced some beach areas and sandbags have been placed on a few stretches to combat coastal erosion.
Acidification threatens the coral reef that surrounds the island, and changing weather patterns may lead to stronger and more frequent cyclones. Overfishing, often carried out by foreign fleets supposed to be limited to angling – but sometimes equipped with vast fishing nets – has depleted fish stocks.
“There is a growing awareness of the needs of the environment,” comments academic and activist Sheila Bunwaree.
The government says it did everything it could to minimize damage from the oil spill. “It has been very well handled and we have to thank the other states who have helped us clean up,” says Arvind Bundhun, director of the tourism promotion authority – referring to teams from France, Japan, the United Kingdom. United and UN, among others. .
“Today there is absolutely no trace of the spill,” he said, adding that the accident happened in the southeast of the island, far from most major tourist resorts.
Chris Reddy, senior scientist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, Massachusetts, says his analysis suggests the Wakashio spill was low-sulphur fuel oil, meaning it likely dissipated quickly. “It was a relatively small amount of oil,” he says, suggesting the long-term impact may be limited.
However, protesters in Port Louis suspect otherwise. They accuse the government of hesitating in its response and of being non-transparent about the extent of the damage.
“It was the greatest ecological disaster in our history,” says Ameenah Gurib-Fakim, biodiversity expert and former president of Mauritius. “We still don’t know the impact on our marine flora and fauna,” she says. “There has never been a proper scientific investigation.”
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Gurib-Fakim says the island’s radar system was found to be insufficient. Even in recent months, other ships have run aground in stormy weather, she said, suggesting the Wakashio may not have been an abnormal incident.
The accident highlighted the need to manage the island’s resources for both economic return and sustainability, says Ravin Dajee, Managing Director of Absa Bank, Mauritius. “Wakashio was a blow to us. There has been a lot of learning on this subject, particularly in terms of crisis management.
Illustrating this point, he draws attention to Mauritius’ 2.3 million square kilometer exclusive economic zone – the vast oceanic portion of which is seen by the island as crucial to its future economic development. “We need the right balance between the development of the country and an environmental strategy that makes sense,” says Dajee.
“How do we protect our heritage? Since tourism is a big part of our economy, we need to do what it takes to protect our environment and the whole ecosystem to make sure it is sustainable,” he explains.
As for Mauritius’ much-heralded blue economy – a concept that encompasses everything from deep-sea mining and sustainable fishing to tourism and the sale of blue conservation bonds – Dajee says: “I hope we will soon come together to make it a true pillar of the economy.”