Mauritius scrambles to counter oil spill

A grounded bulk carrier is leaking oil towards the coast of Mauritius.
A grounded bulk carrier is leaking oil towards the coast of Mauritius.

Anxious residents of the Indian Ocean island nation of Mauritius stuffed fabric sacks with sugar cane leaves to create makeshift oil spill barriers as tonnes of fuel leaking from a grounded ship put endangered wildlife in further peril.

The government has declared an environmental emergency and France said it was sending help from its nearby Reunion island.

Satellite images on Saturday showed a dark slick spreading in the turquoise waters near wetlands that the government called "very sensitive".

"When biodiversity is in peril, there is urgency to act," French President Emmanuel Macron tweeted.

Wildlife workers and volunteers ferried dozens of baby tortoises and rare plants from an island near the spill, Ile aux Aigrettes, to the mainland as fears grew that worsening weather on Sunday could tear the Japanese-owned ship apart along its cracked hull.

A French statement from Reunion on Saturday said a military transport aircraft was carrying pollution control equipment to Mauritius and a navy vessel with additional material would set sail for the island nation.

Residents and environmentalists alike wondered why authorities didn't act more quickly after the ship ran aground on a reef on July 25. Mauritius says the ship, the MV Wakashio, was carrying nearly 4000 tons (3600 metric tonnes) of fuel.

"That's the big question," Jean Hugues Gardenne of the Mauritian Wildlife Foundation told The Associated Press. "Why that ship has been sitting for long on that coral reef and nothing being done."

This is the country's first oil spill, he said, adding that perhaps no one expected the ship to break apart. For days, residents peered out at the precariously tilted ship as a salvage team arrived and began to work, but ocean waves kept battering the ship.

"They just hit and hit and hit," Gardenne said.

Cracks in the hull were detected a few days ago and the salvage team was quickly evacuated. Some 400 sea booms were deployed to contain the spill, but they were not enough.

Prime Minister Pravind Jugnauth says the spill "represents a danger" for the country of 1.3 million people that relies heavily on tourism and has been been hit hard by the effects of the coronavirus pandemic, which has restricted travel worldwide.

Australian Associated Press