A ship that ran aground off Mauritius leaking tonnes of oil into the ocean is cracking up, the country’s prime minister has said, threatening an even greater ecological and economic disaster for the island nation.
More than 1,000 tonnes of fuel has seeped from the bulk carrier MV Wakashio into the sea off south-east Mauritius, polluting the coral reefs, white-sand beaches and pristine lagoons that lure tourists from around the globe.
A further 2,500 tonnes remain onboard the stricken vessel, which ran aground on a reef on 25 July but only started oozing from a crack in the hull in the past week.
Experts warn a further rupture could unleash a spill that would be catastrophic for the fragile coastal ecosystem upon which Mauritius, and its economy, relies.
Pravind Jugnauth, the prime minister of the Indian Ocean nation, said response crews had managed to stem the leak for now, but were bracing for the worst. “The cracks have grown. The situation is even worse,” he told reporters late on Sunday. “The risk of the boat breaking in half still exists.”
Japan said on Sunday it would send a six-member team of experts to assist with what Mauritius has declared an unprecedented environmental emergency.
France also dispatched a naval vessel, a military aircraft and technical advisers from nearby Reunion Island after Mauritius appealed for international help.
Thousands of volunteers, many smeared head-to-toe in black sludge, have marshalled along the coastline, stringing together miles of improvised floating barriers made of straw in a desperate attempt to hold back the oily tide.
Mitsui OSK Lines, which operates the vessel owned by another Japanese company, promised on Sunday to “make all-out efforts to resolve the case”.
“We are terribly sorry,” the shipping firm’s vice president, Akihiko Ono, told reporters in Tokyo.
But some fear the damage is already done.
Aerial images show the enormity of the disaster, with huge stretches of crystal-clear seas around the marooned cargo ship stained a deep inky black. Thick muck has coated mangrove forests and unspoiled inlets up and down the coastline, exacting irreparable harm and undoing years of painstaking conservation work, environmental activists say.
The slick has already begun drifting further up the coast, fanned along by strong winds and currents.
“I think it’s already too late. If the ship breaks in two, the situation will be out of control,” Vassen Kauppaymuthoo, an oceanographer and environmental engineer, told AFP. “We’re talking about a major disaster that is progressing, and it’s getting more complicated hour by hour.”
Pressure is mounting on the government to explain why more was not done in the two weeks since the ship ran aground.
The opposition has called for the resignation of the environment and fisheries ministers, while volunteers have ignored an official order to leave the clean-up operation to local authorities, donning rubber gloves to sift through the sludge.
“People by the thousands are coming together. No one is listening to the government anymore,” said Ashok Subron, an environmental activist at Mahebourg, one of the worst-hit areas. “People have realised that they need to take things into their hands. We are here to protect our fauna and flora.”
Police boarded the Japanese-owned but Panamanian-flagged Wakashio on Sunday and seized the ship’s log book and black box as part of investigations into the disaster.
The vessel struck a reef at Pointe d’Esny, an ecological jewel fringed by idyllic beaches, colourful reefs, sanctuaries for rare and endemic wildlife, and unique wetlands.
Mauritius and its 1.3 million inhabitants depend crucially on the sea for eco-tourism, having fostered a reputation as a conservation success story and a world-class destination for nature lovers.