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Mauritians race to contain catastrophic oil spill swamping island’s pristine beaches and coral reefs

Thousands of volunteers in Mauritius are racing to contain a catastrophic oil spill swamping its pristine ocean and beaches on Sunday. 

The bulk carrier MV Wakashio ran aground two weeks ago and has been seeping fuel into a protected marine park boasting unspoiled coral reefs, mangrove forests and endangered species, prompting the government to declare an unprecedented environmental emergency. 

Attempts to stabilise the stricken vessel, which ran aground on July 25 but only started leaking oil this week, and pump 4,000 tonnes of fuel from its hold have failed, and local authorities fear rough seas could further rupture the tanker.

Prime Minister Pravind Jugnauth said response crews had managed to stymie the leak for now, but were bracing for the worst. The cracks have grown. The situation is even worse,’ he told reporters late Sunday. ‘The risk of the boat breaking in half still exists.’

Japan said Sunday it would send a six-member expert team to assist, joining France which dispatched a naval vessel and military aircraft from nearby Reunion Island after Mauritius issued an appeal for international help. 

Thousands of volunteers, many smeared head-to-toe in black sludge, are marshalling 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, said Sunday that 1,000 tonnes of fuel oil had escaped so far.

‘We are terribly sorry,’ the shipping firm’s vice president, Akihiko Ono, told reporters in Tokyo, promising to ‘make all-out efforts to resolve the case’.

But conservationists say the damage could already be done.

Aerial images show the enormous scale of the disaster, with huge stretches of azure seas around the marooned cargo ship stained a deep inky black, and the region’s fabled lagoons and inlets clouded over. 

Thick muck has inundated unspoiled marine habitats and white-sand beaches, causing what experts say is irreparable damage to the fragile coastal ecosystem upon which Mauritius and its economy relies. 

Pressure is mounting on the government to explain why more wasn’t done in the two weeks since the bulker 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 said Sunday they would execute a search warrant granted by a Mauritius court to board the Wakashio and seize items of interest, including the ship’s log book and communication as part of its investigation into the accident.

The ship’s captain, a 58-year-old Indian, will accompany officers on the search, police said. Twenty crew members evacuated safely from the Japanese-owned but Panamanian-flagged ship when it ran aground are under surveillance.

Prime Minister Jugnauth has convened a crisis meeting later Sunday, after expressing concern that forecast bad weather could further complicate efforts to stymie the spill, and cause more structural damage to the hull.

Ecologists fear if the ship further breaks it could inflict a potentially fatal blow to on the island nation’s coastline.

The Wakashio struck a reef at Pointe d’Esny, an ecological jewel fringed by idyllic beaches, colourful reefs, sanctuaries for rare and endemic wildlife, and unique RAMSAR-listed wetlands.

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 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.’ 

Mauritius and its 1.3 million inhabitants depend crucially on the sea for ecotourism, having fostered a reputation as a conservation success story and a world-class destination for nature lovers.

The spill is a double blow for tourist operators who had hoped foreign tourists could soon return to Mauritius. The Indian Ocean nation has no active cases of coronavirus, and had declared wary victory after a long stretch without any new infections.

But it also relies on its natural bounty for food and income. Seafarers in Mahebourg, where the once-spotless seas have turned a sickly brown, worried about the future.

‘Fishing is our only activity. We don’t know how we will be able to feed our families,’ one fishermen, who gave his name only as Michael, told AFP.

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