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The Mauritius Oil Spill: An Environmental Catastrophe That Could Have Been Much Worse

The Mauritius Oil Spill: An Environmental Catastrophe That Could Have Been Much Worse
A large patch of leaked oil and the vessel MV Wakashio near Blue Bay Marine Park off the coast of southeast Mauritius on Aug. 6, 2020. AFP via Getty Images

The environmental disaster that Mauritius is facing is starting to appear as its pristine waters turn black, its fish wash up dead, and its sea birds are unable to take flight, as they are limp under the weight of the fuel covering them. For all the damage to the centuries-old coral that surrounds the tiny island nation in the Indian Ocean, scientists are realizing that the damage could have been much worse and there are broad lessons for the shipping industry, according to Al Jazeera.

As EcoWatch reported earlier this week, a French ship was working with Mauritian authorities and a team from Japan to remove the remaining fuel in the ship's tanks before it broke in two and spilled thousands of tons of fuel into the water. Fortunately, that operation was successful and all but a minimal amount of fuel has been removed from the sinking ship, according to the BBC. That means a spill that's more than twice as damaging has been avoided. Furthermore, nobody died in the accident. The worst has been avoided as Mauritius waits for the ship to break in two.

Al Jazeera noted that the ship also had no cargo so it was not a fully loaded tanker, which would have caused much more damage. This accident has spilled the equivalent of about 7,000 barrels of oil, a tiny fraction of the nearly 3.2 million barrels spilled by the Deepwater Horizon accident.

While that is a spot of good news, the environmental impact of what has been spilled is just coming into focus. The waters of Blue Bay Marine Park, a habitat for rare marine life and a wetlands designated as a site of international importance by an international convention on wetlands, have been devastated, according to Reuters.

"This oil spill occurred in one of, if not the most, sensitive areas in Mauritius," oceanographer and environmental engineer Vassen Kauppaymuthoo told Reuters by telephone from the island, where he was surveying the disaster. "We are talking of decades to recover from this damage, and some of it may never recover."

The Ursa Space Systems tweeted satellite imagery from a Finnish satellite that showed the extent of the oil slick earlier this week. "Our team estimates the size of the slick is nearly 10x larger than on Aug 6," the tweet reads.

"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, as Al Jazeera reported.

Additionally, there are reports of people breathing oil vapor, according to the BBC.

Reuters noted that the area around Mauritius will feel a slow, insidious impact, as the corals and fish become the first to die off. That means the remaining corals will be increasingly vulnerable to marine heat waves, which are becoming more frequent and more extreme as the climate crisis unfolds.

"If things continue to go the way they are the future prospects for coral reefs look very, very bleak indeed," said Alex Rogers, a visiting professor at Oxford University, to Reuters. Blue Bay Marine Park is home to 38 unique species of coral.

The oil will also seep into the sediment around the roots of mangrove trees and could choke out mollusks, crabs and fish eggs, said Callum Roberts, a professor of marine conservation at the University of Exeter in Britain, who spoke to Reuters.

"It's very hard to remove once it's sunk into the sediment," Roberts said. "Trees can become sick and die."

Additionally, the sea grasses around the island will be at risk and the fate of the critically endangered Pink Pigeon is in jeopardy. The sea grasses play a vital role in protecting the coastline from waves, according to Reuters.

This spill is also a warning shot for the increasingly treacherous waters around the Arctic, which is seeing an increase in ice melt. That means the waters are becoming more navigable, but sea ice that has broken off from ice shelves threaten the increased tanker traffic, according to the Clean Arctic Alliance (CAA), as Al Jazeera reported.

"The spill in Mauritius demonstrates the limitations of response operations to cope with heavy fuel oil spills even in relatively favorable conditions," said Dave Walsh of the CAA to Al Jazeera.

"It underlines the need for the shipping industry to move away from powering vessels with fuels which pollute the air when they are burned and the ocean when there is an accident."

Ships carrying heavy fuel are already banned from Antarctica's waters, but no ban exists in the Arctic.

"What has happened in Mauritius is not an isolated incident, but part of a pattern of unacceptable behavior by an industry that routinely puts commercial considerations ahead of safety and the environment," said Walsh to Al Jazeera. "Put simply, the shipping industry must find a way towards an exit from the age of dirty fossil fuel-powered shipping."

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