Four bands of strong, symbolic colours make up the Mauritian flag. Red, Blue, Yellow and Green in recognition of independence, pristine waters, and islands that illustrate the paradise nation. The Indian Ocean’s waters, represented by the Blue of the flag, have, however, recently been blotted with a pool of seething, blackening oil. The turquoise colours of the seas being blended into swirling greys sap out the colours from vibrant, thriving wildlife.
Tourism and Fishing Industries that keep the country afloat have been plunged into jeopardy. And in protest of the government’s perceived inaction, the national flags are being brandished in the capital, Port Louis, and fishing villages, by angered Mauritians following the disastrous oil spill of the MV Wakashio, since it hit coral reefs on the 25th of July.
Dead dolphins and whales and an attack on Mauritius’, and the world’s, sensitive and protected biodiverse areas ensued. This is not just a grave ecological disaster catching humanity red-handed; it is a timely reminder that our dependence on oil is consequential beyond greenhouse gases and the need to change this is imperative.
It is true that the number of spills and quantity of oil spilt from tankers has been much on the decline going forward from the 20th century into the 21st. Though it should be emphasised that oil spills are not as few and far between as front page, international news may suggest.
The oil is no less than a poison to areas where conservation has been occurring for decades
Perhaps the most infamous and memorable have been the most catastrophic for people and the planet. Deepwater Horizon in 2010, and the Gulf War Oil Spills in 1991, are the two largest, and most damming, examples of accidental and non-accidental spills, respectively. The Mauritius Oil Spill was a small fraction of these disasters; at an estimated 1,000 tonnes, it is several magnitudes lower.
While MV Wakashio ran aground coral reefs in July, its fuel oil began leaking in August. Much of the cargo oil and lubricants were removed by salvage experts reducing the spillage by around 3,000 tonnes. This seems like a mild success. However, the location of the incident is the reason for such outcry.
Fuels from the disastrous wreckage leeched into Ile aux Aigrettes nature reserve and Blue Bay Marine Park, a coastal wetland. Both areas are outstanding biodiversity hotspots for marine life, including endangered green turtles. The oil is no less than a poison to areas where conservation has been occurring for decades.
Spoiled beaches and at least 40 dead dolphins and 47 dead whales washing up, directly affects Mauritians already hit by the coronavirus pandemic
This is not just about a loss of at-risk species, but also loss of entire naturally woven ecosystems; mangrove trees crowded along coastlines, anchored by their intertwined roots are an anchor to the life that exists. To the birds that nest in these trees above and the fish that make nurseries of the roots below, and to the crabs and the molluscs and the corals this seemingly small oil spill is actually of a deadly, gargantuan proportion.
The beautiful coastlines and richly diverse waters are environmentally important, but also economically. Coastal tourism, fishing and watersports contribute over a tenth of Mauritius’ GDP. Whale and dolphin watching accounts for US$2 billion annually. Therefore, spoiled beaches and at least 40 dead dolphins (which the Mauritian Government has labelled a “sad coincidence”) and 47 dead whales washing up, directly affects Mauritians already hit by the coronavirus pandemic. It is no wonder that protests have occurred, and the Mauritian people have so readily supported the clean-up, following damage done to an integral part of their identities, livelihoods, and pride.
With sugarcane leaf and barbers’-cut-hair filled fabric booms (pictured below), some of the oil’s spread in the seas was contained and absorbed. International response has been forthcoming too. Japan has sent experts for clean-up. France and India had sent equipment and specialist teams, and the UK sent ecology and marine law experts.
This clean-up is in contrast with that of the Exxon Valdez, the oil tanker that struck a reef and spilled 37,000 tonnes of oil across the Gulf of Alaska in 1989. At the time, it was the largest oil spill in US waters and was notorious for large environmental damage of the subarctic climate ecosystem. Following complicated clean-up efforts fishermen there also suffered, going bankrupt after the decimation of Pacific herring populations. 22 killer whales, 3,000 sea otters and billions of salmon eggs were just some of the wildlife causalities included in the death toll. But there were positive outcomes too.
Nature bouncing back takes time, as we have seen during the pandemic
Environmental officials left uncleaned stretches of shoreline to examine the effectiveness of some of the oil spill cleanup methods in use. They found that high-pressure-hot-water use to remove the oil only damaged surviving plants further. Out of this disaster was borne stricter laws in 1990 to reduce spills, and the following decades have demonstrated a reduction in spill numbers.
There is no doubt this was a defining moment for oil and the shipping industry. Additionally, ExxonMobil was facing billions of dollars in punitive damages, although these have since been slashed to $500 million in a legal case taken to the US Supreme Court in 2008. And according to the Office of Response and Restoration, the populations of otters, seals and bald eagles, also certain fish species, have recovered since 1989 to 2014.
Nature bouncing back takes time, as we have seen during the pandemic. But it is not perfect, and some species and populations will be gone forever. The Pacific herring are thought not to be recovering at all, and one very unique killer whale pod has no hope and is simply dying.
The consequences and history of the Exxon Valdez is in tune with MV Wakashio. Ecological disasters are consequences of both. But now in a world where climate change is a hot topic that needs addressing, the stakes and consequences of this Mauritius oil spill are much higher.
Developing countries like Mauritius have the most to lose from climate change, to which they are, in fact, contributing so little
It would be easy to say that the world cannot continue cleaning up its mistakes and disasters after they have occurred. And that it is common sense that these incidents should be avoided by eliminating their cause: fossil fuels.
However, while this is all true, it would unpragmatic to expect such energy transition to renewables and away from fossil fuels so soon in face of sudden outcry. It would appear easier to update the law, as occurred in 1990, to reduce spills than it is for ships to stop running on oil and be decarbonised. But had this ship been decarbonised, this crisis would have been almost entirely avoided.
This incident is still a grand metaphor for the world’s action in combatting climate change. The Japanese bunker ship, MV Wakashio, was destined for cargo pickup from Brazil after setting sail from China. Mauritius was caught up in its destruction despite having no part in it all.
Influential and more prosperous countries like Japan, Brazil, China, and those in the Western world, dictate and argue about who is to blame, and who should take on responsibility and the challenge to transform into a renewable and sustainable society. Developing countries like Mauritius have the most to lose from climate change, to which they are, in fact, contributing so little.
They are left to reel, lament and pick up the pieces of what they have lost
This spill is a metaphor, and a stark message. Our planet stands to lose ecosystems in a time where wildlife populations have been reduced by two-thirds. Developing nations stand to lose livelihoods. Many other impacts of climate change are well documented. All this stems from our use of oil, gas, and coal.
However, it is much easier to campaign for oil to go than it is for it to be implemented out of society. Time, effort, and money are all valuable and limited resources. Innovation to really spark change in certain oil-dependent industries is not available at the drop of a hat. Coupled with variously motivated political interests, eliminating fossil fuels is a hefty ask.
Fortunately, we are seeing more and more companies, oil giants, and countries setting deadlines and putting together strategies and schemes to achieve carbon neutrality, carbon-zero. This is worth celebrating whatever their supposed intentions may be. Peaceful protests and people applying pressure with reason are still vital if all this change is to really be enacted soon, and to get those still sceptical of a need to change, to budge.
As for the Mauritians, they are left to reel, lament and pick up the pieces of what they have lost. The ship’s captain was arrested. Mauritius has supposedly asked Japan for US $34 million to support their fisherman. The Japanese ship operator is to pay US $9 million for the clean-up operations. Calls are being made for shipping reform. Some justice. However, money will not buy back the damage done to our world.
Whether nature bounces back even as successfully as that in the aftermath of Exxon Valdez remains to be seen. For now, this clean-up appears to just be that, a quick clean-up. A temporary clearing up of a deadly blot. Let this spill stain our minds and be a reminder that the removal of fossil fuel use is imperative and necessary going forward.
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