Mauritius lies in the Indian Ocean about 500 miles off the East coast of Madagascar. It is volcanic in origin and is almost completely surrounded by beautiful coral reefs and mangroves along the shoreline.
The vegetation alone on the island includes 600 indigenous species. Previously, the country majorly depended on sugar cane exports however the government worked towards diversifying the economy and now its economy is based on tourism (36% of GDP), exports and agriculture.
A huge tourist attraction for Mauritius is reef, home to some of the finest corals and marine protected areas in the world. Coral reefs are the most biodiverse ecosystem in the ocean and are home to approximately 25% of marine life. Not only that but they deliver a vast array of direct benefits to an estimated 1 billion people. Some benefits include nutrition, security, health, and wellbeing.
However, along with being the most diverse ecosystem they are also one of the most vulnerable to climate change. They respond quickly to our oceans warming by a term called coral bleaching and they are also negatively impacted by increasing Carbon Dioxide in the atmosphere. One of the many results of CO2 in our atmosphere is ocean acidification.
Did You Know? Our oceans absorb a huge amount of CO2 from the atmosphere. As CO2 in the atmosphere increases in our oceans it lowers the pH of our ocean (acidifies) which is likely to affect the ability of some organisms to maintain or build their shells.
Coral’s response to ocean acidification is a significant reduction in their ability to rebuild their shells or skeletons which is a vital step in the reef rebuilding process. Coral reefs are very unstable and fragile.
On July 25, 2020, the struggle to protect the reefs was unimaginably intensified specifically for the Mauritian community. This pristine image of coral reefs and biodiversity was destroyed by a Japanese oil tanker called MV Wakashio, which crashed into the reef after going off course. The coast guards attempted to reach the ship to warn that its course was dangerous but had received no reply.
The tanker was carrying 4,000 tons of fuels. 1,000 tons of oil leaked 12 days after the crash but thankfully the remaining 3,000 tons of oil from the ships reservoirs was extracted and transported to another nearby oil tanker before conditions could deteriorate further.
Some scientists call the spill the country’s worst ever ecological disaster. The effects of which are still unfolding, and impacts will continue to be seen long term.
There was no immediate action or response plan from government authorities or the Japanese oil tanker company to remove the oil or mitigate against the damage from the spill so the locals united and got to work relying on their ingenuity alone.
At least 5,000 locals, without any professional equipment, began stuffing sugar cane and leaves into plastic sheets to make improvised barriers that floated to trap the oil. The timing was perfect for sourcing the sugar cane as the growing season had just ended. The team worked together to create 45km worth of floating booms! Some individuals even used hair and tights to contribute in any way that they could.
Yan Coquet, a member of the local community and a passionate environmentalist said to me
‘I have never in my life witnessed people in Mauritius, from all communities – every age- every background, the whole population, ever focused on one thing, trying to save the Mauritius Coast. Quite extraordinary from a human point of view.’
Despite this, the community was limited by the government in how they could help with specialized training or selection required for specific tasks e.g. clearing the mangroves. Tal Harris, a communications coordinator for Greenpeace Africa International, told CNN that authorities had told volunteers to stop any clean-up activities and have “decreed the area a forbidden zone.”
Despite the Japanese firm pledging compensation for the spill, their help was not there when initially needed. The community had already been suffering economically from the corona virus travel restrictions so this spill could not have come at a worse time. Many are aware the repercussions will be long-lasting and widespread.
The measures taken by the government, the eventual intervention by the Japanese firm, the arrest of the ship’s captain and another crew member failed to reflect the ‘state of environmental emergency’ that had initially been declared. The local community, many of whom heavily depend on the reef for their livelihoods still had a residing amount of anger, rage and upset.
Yan Coquet said
‘it is very sad for the ecosystem but also for those who just love nature, it is not all destroyed but for certain the mangroves are in a really bad state, some are already dying’
This upset was enhanced by the shocking and heartbreaking discovery of almost 50 dead melon head whales found washed up along Mauritius shore line shortly after the spill. It was a deeply sad and alarming day for the people of Mauritius and its biodiversity. Experts said there is no clear connection with the death of the dolphins and the spill however, it is believed that the sonars from the wreck of the ship still in the ocean could have had an affect on the whales.
The locals knew the government did not act soon enough, deeper investigation into the spill was required and not enough concern was expressed over the devastation that was and will continue to be apparent in the reef and surround area. There was also initial denial from the government that the ship would even break when many boating experts could see it was inevitable. With this drive and outrage we saw a sense solidarity form within the community and an opportunity was created to speak up! Thousands took to the streets and marched demanding government officials step down and responsibility be taken.
- The Japanese ship operator pledged $9 million toward clean-up efforts. This will be phased over several years. Mauritius previously had asked the Japanese to provide at least $34 million to help deal with the ramifications of the oil spill.
- Some of the measures include running mangrove and coral protection projects and setting up an environmental recovery fund.
- In addition, the shipping company plans to provide further support to local fishing and tourism industries, though details still need to be confirmed.
- Locals are still doing everything that their can to save the ecosystem and their livelihoods.
Mauritians still need our help and support for the long term impacts they will experience as a result of this unprecedented event. Governments need to have a more cohesive emergency plan for shipwrecks as 6 large spills occur globally each year resulting in fears of similar events in the future. We as concerned citizens in conjunction with government bodies must work together to let oil companies know that such actions are unacceptable. The consequences for destroying one of nature’s most fragile ecosystems should be equal to the crime.
Learn More Do More:
- BBC Report with further details on the spill: https://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-53754751
- UN Environment on the spill and importance of safe guarding our reefs: https://www.unenvironment.org/news-and-stories/story/oil-spill-mauritius-calls-more-efforts-safeguard-coral-reef-ecosystems
- Video showing footage and results of the spill: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kDOobamVtAA
- Eco Sud, one of the NGOs working on the ground to clear the spill: https://ecosud.mu/
- Further Detail on Ocean Acidification: https://www.pmel.noaa.gov/co2/story/What+is+Ocean+Acidification%3F
- Importance of coral reefs https://wwf.panda.org/our_work/our_focus/oceans_practice/coasts/coral_reefs/coral_importance.cfm
- Donate: https://www.facebook.com/donate/323358035476907/3270076633047995/