The Mauritius oil spill that began last month could be becoming an ecological catastrophe. For days, dozens of big ocean animals have been washing up on Mauritius’ shore. So far, 39 dead dolphins and 3 whales have been found, and other sick and injured dolphins and whales have been turning up as well, too. In a press conference, the country’s fisheries minister Sudheer Maudhoo denied reports that oil remnants were found inside the animals’ corpses, saying their deaths were merely a “sad coincidence,” but experts are still studying the corpses, the Associated Press reports.
The spill began in late july when a stranded Japanese ship leaked some 1,000 metric tons of oil into the Indian Ocean. Residents of the island nation have been doing everything they can to contain the damage, including cutting their hair so it can be used to soak up the oil.
The reports of the deaths are fueling concerns about how much damage the oil spill has caused to the area’s lush coastal ecosystems, which provide the country’s 1.29 million residents with food and are the foundation of the country’s tourism economy. The damage could also be affecting crucial wetlands and coral reefs, which protect Mauritians from sea level rise. Even before the recent oil spill, the region’s marine animals were already facing grave threats due to the changing climate, pollution, and overfishing. The oil spill’s impacts are adding to that stress, and experts say the effects could last for decades.
“The ocean is part of who we are. The whole country including coastal communities depend on its health,” Vijay Naraidoo, co-director of environmental and human rights organization Dis Moi, said in a statement. “That is why many Mauritians woke up anguished and afraid that the oil spill may be killing it. Such biodiversity loss is an ominous development for what might come as a result of the oil spill.”
Even before the recent findings of dead and sick animals ashore, the oil spill triggered outrage from locals, who said cleanup had been severely mishandled. On Saturday, tens of thousands of people rallied in the country’s capital of St. Louis, saying the government’s response to the oil spill has been far too slow.
Dissatisfied with the official response to the environmental disaster, locals have also taken the matter of rescuing animals into their own hands, banging iron bars together to create loud sounds which keep the wildlife away from the affected area. They’ve also created makeshift oil barriers from sugar cane leaves, old clothing, and the aforementioned human hair, with empty plastic bottles tucked inside of them to keep them afloat.
On Monday, Dis Moi, Greenpeace Africa, and Greenpeace Japan sent a letter to the Mauritian government demanding a quick and public autopsy of the dead animals. The groups are also calling for the the government of Mauritius to investigate the causes and effects of the shipwreck, and for the owners and operators of the ship that spilled to pay for damages due to the spill, including lost jobs and environmental cleanup. Seems like the least they can do.