Oil spill puts five-decade Mauritian fisher family in a bind

A look at Mauritius' shoreline in 2019. Image: Wikipedia

It may take a decade to restore a delicate ecosystem in Mauritius after a bulk carrier ran aground and spilled oil into the island nation’s pristine waters. Some fishermen fear they may never get their lives back.

The vessel that left Mauritius almost helpless after it spilled 1,000 tons of fuel oil in its waters broke up on Saturday, not long after crews removed the black liquid that remained in the vessel. Further leakage from Nagashiki Shipping Co.’s Wakashio was prevented, and the focus now is on cleaning up the filth that’s the Indian Ocean island nation’s worst-ever ecological disaster.

Dead fish were seen floating, and red containers filled with black debris dotted the coastline as residents rushed to do whatever they could to remove the dirt. Thousands helped to make booms with husks and hair, while others deployed the barriers to prevent the oil from spreading further.

“It’s a cause of despair,” said 67-year-old Edmond Bertrand Vurdapanaicken.

Vurdapanaicken, like other fishermen in the coastal villages, face a bleak future after the spill. He has been fishing in the waters for 55 years with his father, brother and cousins. The grandfather of two gets about 500 rupees ($12.6) and four times that on a good day when he sells some of his catch. “We won’t be able to get back to our life,” he said.

The 300 meter-long ship, chartered by Mitsui OSK Lines, was en route to Brazil from China and carrying 3,894 tons of low-sulfur fuel oil, 207 tons of diesel and 90 tons of lubricant. It hit a reef on southeastern Mauritius on July 25 and started leaking oil almost two weeks later.

On hearing the news of a stranded vessel, Vurdapanaicken jumped on his bike and rode about a mile from Cite La Chaux, D’Esny, to go and see for himself. He was irked by a leakage that probably could have been prevented had the oil been removed from the vessel sooner.

‘Hot tar’

Prime Minister Pravind Kumar Jugnauth said the government was unable act immediately because it lacked the resources.

Ravin Mewa, 40, had never imagined a disaster of this magnitude would ever happen near his home, where residents fish on a small scale and farm vegetables for a living. The people of Bois des Amourettes, one of the villages affected, may live with the smell of “hot tar” for many years to come, Mewa said.

Mauritius now faces widespread pollution, threatening the livelihoods of communities that depend on the ocean, and the Blue Bay Marine reserve, which is popular with snorkelers. The Mauritian economy, which relies on tourists who flock to its white-sand beaches, is already reeling from the coronavirus fallout and may be further affected by the spill.

Japan sent a six-person mission to assess the situation and report daily to a panel that includes representatives of the governments, the United Nations and the European Union. Tadakuni Ito, who is part of the mission, told journalists on Friday that the oil had reached nine coastal points that he visited.

The Mauritian government has set up an e-platform to report loss or damage caused from the oil spillage. The details will be sent to the ship’s owners.

 “After a month, we would be able to have a better picture of the damage,” said Mauritius-based oceanographer Sharveen Persand. “It will take at least 10 years on a conservative basis for the ecosystem to regain its previous state.”

© 2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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