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Mauritius must brace for ‘worst case scenario’ after oil spill

A Japanese ship that ran aground on a reef off Mauritius two weeks ago has now stopped leaking oil into the Indian Ocean but the island nation must still prepare for ‘a worst case scenario’, Prime Minister Pravind Jugnauth said late yesterday.  

Conservationists said they were starting to find dead fish as well as seabirds covered in oil, increasing fears of an ecological catastrophe despite a massive local cleanup operation that includes making floating booms from leaves and human hair.

‘We are starting to see dead fish. We are starting to see animals like crabs covered in oil, we are starting to see seabirds covered in oil, including some which could not be rescued,’ said Vikash Tatayah, conservation director at Mauritius Wildlife Foundation, a non-governmental organisation. 

Jugnauth said the leak from a damaged oil tank on board the stricken vessel, the MV Wakashio, had stopped but that it still had 2,000 tonnes of oil in two other, undamaged tanks. 

‘The salvage team has observed several cracks in the ship hull, which means that we are facing a very serious situation,’ Jugnauth said in a televised speech, parts of which were made available to Reuters by his office.

‘We should prepare for a worst case scenario. It is clear that at some point the ship will fall apart.’ 

‘The danger of the ship breaking into two is increasing hour by hour,’ said Sunil Dowarkasing, an environmental consultant and former member of parliament in Mauritius. 

‘The cracks have now reached the base of the ship and there is still a lot of fuel on the ship. Two ships are headed to the site so that fuel can be pumped into them, but it is very difficult.’  

Mauritius has declared a state of emergency and former colonial ruler France has sent aid in what environmental group Greenpeace said could be a major ecological crisis. Japan has also sent help.  

High winds and waves are pounding the bulk carrier. 

‘We are expecting the worst,’ said Jean Hugues Gardenne of the Mauritian Wildlife Foundation.

‘The ship is showing really big, big cracks. We believe it will break into two at any time, at the maximum within two days,’ said Mr Gardenne. ‘So much oil remains in the ship, so the disaster could become much worse. It’s important to remove as much oil as possible. Helicopters are taking out the fuel little by little, tonne by tonne.’   

French experts have arrived from the nearby island of Reunion and are deploying booms to try to contain any new oil spill, Mr Gardenne said. France sent a navy ship, military aircraft and technical advisers after Mauritius appealed for international help.

‘The booms should be in place within hours, which we hope will help to protect the coastline from further damage,’ he said.

The booms will boost the improvised barriers that thousands of volunteers in Mauritius created from fabric tubes stuffed with straw and sugar cane leaves.

Amid the rough seas, efforts are also under way to get other ships close enough to pump large amounts of oil out of the Japanese bulk carrier. 

Tourism is a major contributor to the Mauritius economy, generating 63 billion rupees (£1.2billion) last year.

The nearby Blue Bay Marine Park, known for its corals and myriad fish species, has so far escaped damage but a lagoon containing an island nature reserve, the Ile Aux Aigrettes, is already covered in oil, he said.

At least 1,000 tonnes of oil is estimated to have leaked so far, polluting its coral reefs, protected lagoons and shoreline. Five hundred tonnes of the fuel has been salvaged. 

Mauritians are making booms out of sugar cane leaves, plastic bottles and hair that people are voluntarily cutting off and floating them on the sea to prevent the oil spill spreading, island resident Romina Tello told Reuters.

‘Hair absorbs oil but not water,’ Tello, founder of Mauritius Conscious, an eco-tourism agency, said by phone.

‘There’s been a big campaign around the island to get hair,’ said Tello, 30, who spent the weekend helping clean black sludge from mangrove swamps.

Videos posted online showed volunteers sewing leaves and hair into nets to float on the surface and corral the oil until it can be sucked up by hoses.

Diving centres, fishermen and others have all joined in the cleanup effort, with guesthouses offering free accommodation to volunteers and hair salons offering discounts to those donating hair, Tello said.

The Mauritian government is also using sea booms to control the spill and vacuuming up oil from the water’s surface.

The MV Wakashio is owned by the Nagashiki Shipping Company and operated by Mitsui OSK Line. 

The Japanese-owned ship ran aground on July 25 but work to remove its oil only started last week when the ship cracked and started emptying the fuel into the sea.

Pressure is mounting on the government of Prime Minister Pravind Jugnauth to explain why it did not take immediate action to avert the environmental disaster. Mr Jugnauth has declared the oil spill a national emergency, but some residents say he acted too late.

The opposition and activists are calling for the resignation of the environment and fisheries ministers. Volunteers have ignored a government order to leave the clean-up operation to local officials.

Japan said it would send a six-member expert team to assist.

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