People aren’t the only ones having a rough go during 2020. Marine life is also taking a big hit with an egregious environmental emergency in Mauritius. A massive oil spill occurred off this Indian Ocean island leading to deaths of dolphins and whales and a threat to the world’s third largest coral reef. Haven’t heard about this disaster? Exactly! Marine life apparently doesn’t matter to the U.S. media.
Part of the reason you may not have heard this news story is because the events didn’t take place in the United States. In fact, you may not even be able to find the location on a map. Ground zero for this coastal catastrophe is the Republic of Mauritius, an island nation in the Indian Ocean off of the southeast coast of Africa. For geography whizzes, Mauritius is due east of Madagascar. For the rest of us, we first need to find Madagascar to start the hunt for Mauritius.
Mauritius, a former British colony, is comprised of four islands–Mauritius, St. Brandon, Rodrigues, and Agalega–which comprise part of the Mascarene Islands. With a tropical climate, it is (or at least was pre-COVID-19) a major tourist destination. Mauritius is also home to some of the world’s rarest plants and animals. The previously unknown species of bird, the dodo (only dodos haven’t heard of the dodo), was found when Mauritius was initially discovered. The island provided the only known home for the dodo, but that bird became extinct in 1681.
Aside from varied flora and fauna, this island paradise is also home to approximately 1.3 million residents. And these residents are currently hot under the collar about a shipping accident and their government’s response to it.
On July 25th a Panama flagged, Japanese owned ship, the M/V Wakashio, was tootling along the coast of Mauritius. (An “M/V” is a merchant vessel transporting cargo for hire for those, which would include me, who are nautically challenged.) The ship, on its way from China to Brazil, was carrying a cargo of oil. Its crew was a merry lot celebrating the birthday of a crew member. To add to the merriment, the captain decided to go off course a few miles and get closer to the coast so his subordinates could get a mobile phone signal to call their families. But the contact made was the bulk carrier striking a coral reef located a mile off shore and running aground. Oops!
The surf pounded the stranded ship which ultimately cracked, spilling approximately 1,000 TONS of heavy oil into fragile marine areas. Pretty much all of the Mauritian coast is a fragile marine area since the island is surrounded by the world’s third largest coral reef. The fuel leaked into the (now formerly) pristine and turquoise waters of the Mahebourg Lagoon, and threatened two environmentally protected marine ecosystems and the Blue Bay Marine Park Reserve. The Reserve was set up to protect “the area’s rich underwater forest of rare corals.” So much for that aim. The leaking oil also wreaked havoc on a small island that served as a bird and wildlife sanctuary.
Mass damage to the marine ecosystem was feared, and Mauritian Prime Minister Pravind Jugnauth declared a state of environmental emergency. No worries, right? The government was in charge. On second thought….
In response to the declared emergency, the Mauritian government took several steps. First, the captain of the ship and the first officer were arrested and charged with “endangering safe navigation.” What? Wasn’t it marine life and wildlife that were endangered? Sure their ship had lodged on a coral reef, but no ships are supposed to be navigating there so who’s navigation was endangered?
Secondly, the decision was made to deliberately sink the stricken ship. This plan required pumping out the fuel in the ship’s two remaining intact large oil tanks. What could possibly go wrong with that plan?? This decision was, understandably, met with anger by the island’s residents who rely on pristine waters and beaches for fishing and tourism, mainstays of the country’s economy. Things were bad enough with the hit taken by the country’s tourism due to COVID-19 and the ban on international travel.
Adding to the discontent, the Mauritian government spent a hefty sum to hire some international consultants to advise them. Really big bucks were paid from the country’s coffers to hire foreigners when local experts were readily available and presumably already familiar with the area and the issues. Hey! Another oxymoron. Alongside military intelligence we can put the phrase “government intelligence.”
Within days of the Wakashio’s sinking, approximately 50 dead whales and dolphins washed up on the Mauritian shores. According to experts, water-soluble chemicals in the fuel may have caused these deaths. Unfortunately, the fuel being transported by the ship was a new low-sulfur fuel oil being introduced to reduce air pollution; therefore, the long-term effects of the spill are uncertain. But the outlook isn’t positive. As a WHO spokesman pointed out: “Oil contains hydrocarbons…, sulfur, and even heavy metals, all of which are acutely and chronically toxic to marine and terrestrial wildlife, as well as humans.”
Mauritians reacted similarly to Americans who are upset about an event. They organized protests to express their frustration with the government’s perceived slow response and the deep secrecy surrounding it. Nevertheless, unlike Americans recently, the Mauritians are capable of having peaceful protests. The first protest was held on August 29th and saw 100,000+ people in attendance. The second protest, on September 12th, had around 50,000 participants. Strikingly, these figures represent between 5% and 10% of the island’s population. That’s an incredible turnout!
These protests, held in Mahebourg, an area affected by the spill, were quite creative. Many individuals carried and waved inflatable dolphins. They also waved clever signs lambasting the government such as “I’ve seen better cabinets in IKEA.” Well, at least the beleaguered Mauritians haven’t lost their sense of humor. The protesters also called for some specific reforms such as revising their constitution to call for greater rights for nature.
Whatever punitive action is taken against the Japanese shipping company and the ship’s commanding officers, the fact remains marine life has been unalterably damaged. A 100,000 year old barrier coral reef has been soiled and marine life has been threatened. Even revising the Mauritian constitution to give rights to nature won’t help the dead dolphins and whales. Perhaps humans need to take the concept more seriously about lives mattering. It’s not just human ones who are under siege in this world. If we don’t wake up and smell the coffee, some marine life may go the way of the dodo.
Before reading this post, had you heard about this environmental emergency? What’s the appropriate action to be taken against businesses responsible for such incidents occurring? Should life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness be extended to marine life in constitutions? Were you aware that the dodo, when in existence, was found only in Mauritius?