Mauritius oil spill: An alarm bell for environmental safety

It is a ship captain’s worst nightmare – the sickening crash and the ear-splitting, grinding crescendo as your vessel runs up on a reef. Such was the fate of the MV Wakashio, as it ran aground in Mauritius in the Indian Ocean on July 25.

No human lives were lost but the environmental consequences have been devastating, as heavy fuel oil seeped into the pristine, species-rich waters of a protected marine park, with unspoiled coral reefs and mangrove forests.

This accident illuminates all too clearly a debate that is going on thousands of kilometers away, as a warming ocean opens up new shipping routes in the Arctic.

Awaiting orders

It is not clear why the MV Wakashio crashed aground. Nagasaki Shipping, the vessel’s owners, have thrown up a protective firewall around the incident but sooner or later we will learn whether this was human error.

You can check the ship’s voyage history online, and it is evident she had been standing by, off the coast of Mauritius for some days, probably awaiting orders. The MV Wakashio is a bulk carrier – it is thought it was returning from China to Brazil after delivering a cargo of iron ore.

So it was the ship’s fuel, not its cargo, that caused the damage. Imagine the consequences had this incident involved a fully loaded oil tanker.

Protected sanctuary

Most of the fuel oil has now been pumped off the ship, but not before 1,000 tonnes had spilled out.

This is a relatively small amount, roughly equivalent to 7,000 barrels of oil. By comparison, the Deepwater Horizon disaster threw out 3.19 million barrels.

Nevertheless, the effect on marine life is cataclysmic. Aerial images show huge stretches of crystal-clear sea stained an inky black.

“Thousands of species around the pristine lagoons are at risk of drowning in a sea of pollution, with dire consequences for Mauritius’s economy, food security and health,” said Happy Khambule, Greenpeace Africa’s senior climate and energy campaign manager.

Shipping route

Mauritius is a key port of call for ships crossing the western Indian Ocean. According to Mongabay, this area is an “innocent passage”, a maritime designation that lets ships pass through a country’s territorial waters even if it is not docking there.

This is apparently the third ship to run aground in five years in Mauritian seas. And for years environmentalists have flagged the dangers posed by shipping near ecologically fragile areas.

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