Mauritius struggles to contain oil spill polluting its seas

PORT LOUIS, MAURITIUS (AFP) – Thousands of Mauritians raced to contain a catastrophic oil spill swamping its pristine ocean and beaches yesterday as frustration mounts over why more wasn’t done to prevent the ecological disaster.

The bulk carrier MV Wakashio 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 environ-mental 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.

Japan said yesterday 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 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 yesterday 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 said 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 environmental activist Ashok Subron at Mahebourg, one of the worst-hit areas.