The Environmental Impact of MV Wakashio oil spill on Mauritius

The ongoing oil pollution incident involving the grounded 203,000 DWT bulk carrier MV Wakashio is causing an ecological disaster on the Indian Ocean island of Mauritius, endangering corals, fish and other marine life which are already affected by climate change. Also, it risks having catastrophic effects for the economy, food security, health and tourism sectors. Tourism in Mauritius, a popular destination for its pristine beaches, has reportedly contributed around $1.6 billion to its economy over the last year and has already experienced the adverse effects of COVID-19.

The Japanese-owned ship, MV Wakashio, was on its way from China to Brazil when it grounded at Pointe d’Esny, south of Mauritius, on July 25, and started to leak tons of oil into the pristine Indian Ocean. The beautiful turquoise waters of the blue lagoon outside the coastal village of Mahébourg in Mauritius, the setting for several Bollywood films, are now painted black and brown. Scientists believe that the toxic spill can affect wildlife on the islands of Mauritius, which rely on tourism, for several years.

The oil spill site is also close to a marine park, two internationally protected wetland sites of international importance including a small coral atoll hosting endemic species of rich and rare biodiversity of Mauritius and a popular tourist destination. The marine ecosystem of Mauritius is home to 1,700 species, including about 800 species of fish, 17 species of marine mammals and two species of tortoises, according to the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity. It is also the site of popular naval war, containing ancient wrecks that have been undisturbed for two centuries.

“There are very few such marine areas with such rich biodiversity left on the planet. An oil spill like this will impact almost everything there,” said Dr Corina Ciocan, a senior lecturer in marine biology at the UK’s University of Brighton. “It is not just about the light oil slick you see on the surface of the water caused by the spill.” There will also be soluble compounds from the oil that will dissolve in the water, a mousse-like layer underneath the surface of the water, and then very heavy residues on the bed – so the entire marine ecosystem will be affected”.

One of the biggest problems for coral reefs in the lagoon-sometimes referred to as the rainforests of the sea-was the diversity of life found in them. According to the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, about 25% of fish in the ocean rely on healthy coral reefs. They shield the coastline from hurricanes and erosion. Coral reefs and marine habitats are the key pillars of Mauritian tourism, which is a big part of the economy of the country.

However, due to the oil spill of MV Wakashio, a variety of marine life around the island are dying and experts have cautioned that the tragedy is threatening endangered species that have been re-introduced to the region over the last decades. Reuters reported that volunteers fished dead eels from muddy waters, and dead starfish washed away in a sticky black liquid. Crabs and seabirds are extinct, too.
In addition, reports claim that on Friday, 39 dead dolphins had been found after the ship hit a coral reef, spilling 1,000 tons of fuel oil into the sea. A government report said that as of Thursday the toll was 26 dead melon-headed whales — which are members of the dolphin family — as well as one bottlenose dolphin.

Greenpeace said an immediate investigation was required to decide if the oil spill killed marine mammals. The organization said the dead dolphins had not eaten and were under stress.
Local fishermen have brought the iron bars together to build a “sonar wall” to prevent further animals from stranding on the shore. “The Mauritian government should do the environmental impact assessment as soon as they can,” said Professor Steiner. Emphasizing the fact that the impact is likely to remain for years.

By Jumana Jabeer

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