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The island of Mauritius in the Indian Ocean is in the middle of a major oil spill crisis, one of the largest it has ever faced.  When oil began to gush out of a massive Japanese vessel, the Wakashio, into a significant 100,000-year-old pristine barrier coral reef and a network of highly protected nature reserves comprising some of the rarest living organism in the world, the government declared a state of environmental emergency. These were established nature reserves and most important sites of historical and cultural significance to Mauritius. 

The front half of the 300-m-long Japanese-owned Panama-flagged vessel sank controversially on 24 August and nearly 50 whales and dolphins washed up dead on the shores of Mauritius within days, which had already been heavily affected by the oil spill since 6 August. The island nation has been shocked and since then there have been significant and continuing national gatherings calling for greater transparency and accountability in the response to the oil spill. 

Compounding it is the oil spill cleanup sponsored by the vessel's insurer, the Japan P&I Club, as reported in a series of press releases from the government. This cleanup of oil spills is carried out in a far more clandestine manner than is normal for major oil spills.

The only consistent and reliable feature of this incident has been the lack of transparency from both parties.

Besides government scientists whose independence has already been questioned by early pronouncements on the deaths of whales and dolphins, the ecologically sensitive coast of Mauritius is now being cleaned without any independent monitoring. Despite being the highly informed nation having all the requisite resources to cope with a major oil spill incident, both within the country and among its vast and well-educated diaspora community, the vessel's insurers employed a large army of international consultants and purposely kept these offers of Mauritian help at a distance. The entire South Eastern coast has now been fenced off and access to Mauritian independent scientists is being restricted by a strong police presence, and only foreign consultants are permitted to enter this region.   The whole treatment of the recovery of the oil spill is now raising eyebrows that everything might not be as it appears.

WHAT ECOSYSTEMS HAVE BEEN AFFECTED?

It can feel like the whole of Mauritius is under oil when you look at the pictures in the newspapers. But only 15 kilometers of oil hit the 350-kilometer shoreline, so it could have been even worse. Unfortunately, in the region affected, there are several environmentally sensitive areas. The ship ran aground just north of the Blue Bay Marine Park off Pointe d'Esny. These sites are classified as hotspots for biodiversity under the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands of International Significance. The oil was carried north by ocean currents, so fortunately there was none in the Blue Bay Marine Park, but the mangroves were covered on the coast north of Pointe d'Esny. This would have an impact as the nursery of the marine ecosystem is mangroves.The Mauritian Wildlife Foundation in Port Louis was researching robustly to restore the island’s unique plants and eradicate invasive species. The oil did not go onto the island itself, but chemicals might have seeped into the corals, and fumes from the spill could also have an impact.

Two rivers open into the bay where the spill of oil is located. A significant habitat is brackish water at the mouths of the rivers, and the oil has started to go up against parts of the river systems. Also, the oil slick floated above a large and rare seagrass area that is home to seahorses. Although the seagrass was not touched by the oil, there is fear that chemicals in the water will affect them.

INTERNATIONAL LAWS BROKEN

It is 61 days after the large iron ore vessel rammed directly into the Eastern Coral Reef of Mauritius, violating many international laws during the reaction process of the oil spill. IMO's Marpol Annex V, IMO's Ballast Water Management Convention, IMO's Regulation of Anti-fouling Systems on Ships, IMO's Hong Kong Convention on the Safe and Environmentally Friendly Recycling of Ships, and the deaths of 49 endangered whales and dolphins raise concerns about violations of the Convention on the Protection of Migratory Species This has not been a small mistake.There were numerous offers from well-respected governments around the world with significant oil spill response experience. The offers were not taken into consideration.    The findings indicate that from one disastrous outcome to the next, the situation has lurched.

The narrative has now moved past the initial shock of the oil spill, but to how the response to the oil spill is treated and the actions of the involved bodies.   The Wakashio easily transforms into a business case study on what not to do in a big industrial accident in a far-off land where meaning, history, or ecology are not understood.

Without a permit, killing a whale is a breach of both national and international law. For such an occurrence that has violated the law, arrests will already be made in several nations of the world.  It is crime prima facie.   As this is a crime scene, the whale and dolphin carcasses should be frozen as evidence so that separate necropsies can be conducted by the appropriate experts, which is an autopsy conducted on whales to determine the cause of death.Mauritius has fishing and aquaculture activities on an industrial scale, so it should not have been a challenge to freeze and store these carcasses. Even if these are privately run facilities, the government has greater authority to intervene when a country is in a state of national emergency.Under caution, a law enforcement officer may have investigated both the vessel insurer, the vessel charterer, and the vessel owner to ascertain-civil or criminal laws had been violated that would warrant the arrest of any of their members.

It is extremely alarming to see 49 whales or dolphins appear dead too soon after a big oil spill. It's not common. At that point, the oil spill reaction should have halted and at that point, there should have been a drastic reflection and improvement in the approach. An investigation would have to find out whether at that stage any significant changes were made to the oil spill response, or whether things continued with 'business as usual.

WHAT STEPS ARE BEING TAKEN NOW?

People began tracking the quality of the water as soon as the ship was grounded. So we've got this baseline from before the spill, and we know the goal we need to meet for water remediation.   A strategy to better clean the shoreline is being formulated by oil-spill experts. The effect on the mangroves could be worse if the cleaning is done poorly. It could also drive contaminants into the sand, which could be released a year or two from now in warm weather.

The vessel's front section was tugged away to be sunk along the shipping route. The least bad choice was this. Even, the rear is on the coral. The fuel was washed, but rust and paint could still cause damage. It falls apart, too, which can destroy the coral

IMPACT OF PAST OIL SPILLS

While recent oil spills around the world have not occurred in environmentally sensitive areas, marine animals and plants have still been seriously affected by them.In 2010, nearly 400,000 tonnes of oil leaked during the Deep Water Horizon incident off the Gulf of Mexico, killing thousands of animals ranging from plankton to dolphins.

Other longer-term impacts on marine life, including impaired reproduction, decreased development, injuries, and illness, have also been reported.   In the months following the spill, researchers observed skin lesions on red snapper from the northern Gulf, but by 2012 the lesions were less frequent and serious. 

In 1978, off the coast of Brittany, France, a massive crude oil carrier sunk, spilling nearly 70 million gallons of oil into the sea.The oil slick polluted about 200 miles of the French coast, and it killed millions of invertebrates, such as mollusks and crustaceans. An estimated 20,000 birds and infected oyster beds in the area were also killed by the spill.Experts claim that despite best efforts, less than 10 percent of oil spilled in accidents such as these is usually cleaned up successfully.

To deal with the Mauritian spill, France sent a military aircraft with pollution control equipment from its neighbouring island of Réunion, while Japan sent a six-member team to assist the French efforts. In the south-east of the island, the Mauritius coast guard and other police units are also at the site.   The Mauritian government should take up the environmental impact assessment immediately. The impact will be seen for years.   


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