Express & Star

Protests in Mauritius over fuel oil spill from grounded ship

Around 1,000 tonnes of fuel oil were spilled into fragile marine areas when the MV Wakashio ran aground this month.

The MV Wakashio

Thousands of people have taken part in a protest in the capital of Mauritius over the government’s handling of an oil spill from a grounded Japanese ship and the alarming discovery of dozens of dead dolphins in recent days.

Frustrated residents marched peacefully through Port Louis a month after the MV Wakashio struck a coral reef offshore and later cracked, spilling around 1,000 tonnes of fuel oil into fragile marine areas.

Protesters waved the country’s flag and held up signs with messages such as: “You have no shame”, “I’ve seen better cabinets at Ikea”, and: “Tyranny is spreading faster than Covid-19”.

A commentary in the Le Mauricien newspaper said: “It’s clear we are at a turning point in the history of our country.”

Mauritius Leaking Ship
Sunil Kumar Nandeshwar, captain of the MV Wakashio (L’express Maurice/AP)

Addressing the crowd, some speakers called for government officials to step down.

“Never seen so many people in the streets. This is beautiful,” local writer Khalil Cassimally tweeted.

Other protests were reported outside the Mauritius High Commission in London and in Paris as well as Perth, Australia.

There was no immediate comment by the Mauritius government on the demonstrations.

The Indian Ocean island nation depends heavily on tourism, and the spill has been a severe blow on top of the effects of the coronavirus pandemic, which has limited international travel.

On Friday, authorities said at least 39 dead dolphins have washed ashore, but it is not yet clear what killed them. Some experts fear chemicals in the fuel are to blame.

Jacqueline Sauzier of the Mauritius Marine Conservation Society told the journal Nature this week: “Something that is also concerning is that we don’t know the possible long-term effects. The oil is a new low-sulphur fuel oil that is being introduced to reduce air pollution.

“This is the first time that type of oil has spilled, so there have been no long-term studies on the impacts.”

Residents and environmentalists have demanded investigations into why the MV Wakashio strayed miles off course.

Mauritius Oil Spill
The bulk carrier ship ran aground off the south-east coast of the island (L’express Maurice/AP)

Its captain and first officer have been arrested and charged with “endangering safe navigation”.

The ship ran aground on July 25 and began leaking fuel on August 6 into the Mahebourg Lagoon, fouling a protected wetlands area and a small island that was a bird and wildlife sanctuary.

Thousands of civilian volunteers worked for days to try to minimise the damage, creating makeshift oil barriers by stuffing fabric bags with sugar cane leaves and empty plastic bottles to keep them afloat.

Environmental workers carefully ferried dozens of baby tortoises and rare plants to shore, plucking some trapped seabirds out of the spill.

Meanwhile, Prime Minister Pravind Jugnauth blamed bad weather for the government’s slow response to the ship’s grounding.

Experts from ship owner Nagashiki Shipping, France and the United Nations have since arrived at the scene.

The ship’s remaining fuel was pumped out before the vessel finally split in two.

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