Mauritius has declared a “state of environmental emergency” after a Japanese bulk carrier that wrecked on its shores in late July began leaking tons of oil into the Indian Ocean. The environmentalist group Greenpeace says the spill is likely to be one of the worst ecological crises the island nation has ever seen and could seriously threaten local coral, fish, and other marine life species.
“Thousands of species around the pristine lagoons of Blue Bay, Pointe d’Esny and Mahebourg are at risk of drowning in a sea of pollution, with dire consequences for Mauritius’ economy, food security and health,” the organization said in a statement Friday evening.
Earlier that day, Mauritius Prime Minister Pravind Jugnauth issued a call for international assistance after fuel began leaking from the MV Wakashio, a tanker owned by the Nagashiki Shipping Company, through cracks in its hull. The ship ran aground on the country’s southeast coast on July 25 with 4,000 tons of fuel onboard, per the Associated Press.
“The sinking of the #Wakashio represents a danger for Mauritius,” Jugnauth tweeted in a plea for French aid. “Our country doesn’t have the skills and expertise to refloat stranded ships,” he continued, and the spill “represents a danger” for its 1.3 million people and the local tourism industry—already suffering a blow from the coronavirus pandemic—that they heavily rely on.
Satellite images released on Friday showed the dark slick seeping into the water around the vessel, which the government has called a “very sensitive” environmental area, and washing ashore. In his tweet, Jugnauth said that the same bad weather that’s prevented local authorities and Nagashiki personnel from cleaning up the spill so far is only expected to get worse this weekend, and he’s concerned about how the rough seas could further damage the ship and hamper emergency response efforts.
On Saturday, France said it planned to send military aircraft loaded with pollution control equipment from its closest neighbor to Mauritius, the French island of Reunion, according to a statement from embassy officials there. A navy vessel with additional materials would also be en-route.
“When biodiversity is in peril, there is urgency to act,” French President Emmanuel Macron tweeted. “France is there. Alongside the people of Mauritius. You can count on our support dear Jugnauth.”
Nagashiki has stated that it’s committed to working with officials to free the tanker as soon as weather permits. “We will do our utmost working with the Mauritius authorities and relevant Japanese organizations to offload the oil still in the ship, clean up the spill and safely remove the vessel,” the company said in a statement to Reuters.
Mauritius police have opened an inquiry into the wreck to investigate claims of negligence, as the tanker had been en route from China to Brazil according to online ship trackers, per the AP. After a salvage team identified the cracks in its hull, the team was evacuated and roughly 400 sea booms were set up to try and contain the spill, the nation’s environment minister, Kavy Ramano, told reporters Thursday.