Mauritius Oil spill, and why it matters

Sukriyo Chakraborty

4th October, 2020

Abstract 

Of late, there has been considerable attention devoted to various environmental organizations and media houses towards the Mauritius oil spill. There have been oil spills in the past, and the quantity of oil leaked by MV Wakashio is considerably less than past incidents. Then why does it matter, and why has it been in the limelight? 

Introduction 

A Japanese owned ship MV Wakashio, on the way from China to Brazil, ran aground on a reef at Pointe d’Esny, off the coast of Mauritius, on July 25. The ship began to spew oil into the pristine seas. Oil began to leak from the ship on 6 August, by which time Mauritius authorities were trying to control the spill and minimize its effects, isolating environmentally sensitive areas of the coast, while waiting for help from foreign countries to pump out an estimated 3,890 tons of oil remaining on board. By 10 August, about 1,000 metric tons of fuel had spilled, with estimates of the remaining oil on board ranging from 2,500 to 3,000 metric tons. Moreover, visible cracks in the hull of the ship led to worries that the ship might break apart. As per official information, 3,000 tons of oil had been pumped out of the ship's fuel reservoirs by then. 

The ship broke up on 15 August when there were still 166 tons of fuel inside. After she split, Wakashio's bow section was towed into the open ocean and scuttled on 24 August. 

Possible reasons for grounding 

According to investigators, the crew had been celebrating the birthday of a sailor on board the ship at the time of the grounding. There have also been claims by crew members that the ship had sailed near shore for a wi-fi signal. However, local police denied reports that the ship had sailed close to land seeking a Wi-Fi signal, saying that looking for a phone signal would not have required sailing so close to land. The ship's captain, Capt. Sunil Kumar Nandeshwar, 58, an Indian national, and deputy captain were arrested on 18 August on suspicion of negligence in operating the vessel. 

Why does it matter? 

Having provided the reader with facts about the incident, I have not addressed the fundamental question which I promised to answer at the beginning of the article: Why does the oil spill matter? Well, as it turns out, this oil spill has taken place in a very vulnerable ecosystem. The amount of oil spilled from the Japanese-owned ship nearby the lagoons and coastal areas of south-east Mauritius is relatively low compared to the big oil spills the world has seen in the past. Unlike most previous offshore spills, this has taken place near two environmentally protected marine ecosystems and the Blue Bay Marine Park reserve, which is a wetland of international importance, protected by the Ramsar Convention(The Ramsar Convention is an international 

agreement on the protection of wetlands, which are of strategic importance to balance in ecosystems, primarily by serving as natural discharge pits/aquifers). 

The ecosystem of this area is particularly dominated by various species of corals. Natural oils contain lots of hydrocarbons. These very toxic hydrocarbons can cause unimaginable damage to the coral species through coral bleaching. The doom of these fragile ecosystems can lead to other associated damages, disrupting the entire marine food chain. Furthermore, there are endemic species of birds (i.e. species found only in the area and nowhere else on the planet). These birds, who often dive into the sea waters to catch fish are adversely affected by oil spills. Their feathers get swamped by oil, and the toxic carcinogenic hydrocarbons are a health hazard as well. Adding to the environmental damage is the destruction of nearby mangrove ecosystems. The silty soil of the area shall adsorb the toxic hydrocarbons, thereby causing widespread soil toxicity and damage to the mangrove trees. This damage shall moreover, be irreversible, given the fact that it is impossible to separate these adsorbed hydrocarbons from the soil. 

A side-note: How are oil spills cleaned? 

It may seem interesting to you how could in fact the oil floating on the sea surface be removed. Well, there are certain adsorbents which help to adsorb oil on their surface. Apart from these adsorbents, chemical dispersing agents are used, which help to break the oil down into micelles with larger surface area, or may occasionally decompose them into simpler compounds, which can then be easily acted upon by natural bacteria. Transgenic (genetically modified) bacteria are also used, in which the gene to code for an enzyme that breaks down hydrocarbons has been inserted (One such bacterial strain was made a long time back by Dr. Ananda Mohan Chakravorty, who passed away recently). 

To conclude… 

Massive cleanup operations have already been undertaken and are underway. However, the fact remains that this is perhaps one of the worst environmental tragedies in a decade. The tricky thing about marine ecosystems is the overwhelming connectedness of the entire ecosystem and its vulnerability. The first massive damage has been reported already – carcasses of at least 24 dolphins have washed up on the shores of Mauritius near the site of the spillage. We have to wait to realize the full consequences of this mammoth tragedy. Until then, more and more efforts need to be directed at discovering eco-friendly technologies to address the alarming issue of oil spills. Environmental and earth sciences need to be taken all the more seriously. If not now, never!

Reference: 

1. Khadka, N. (2020, August 12). Why the Mauritius oil spill is so serious. Retrieved September 07, 2020, from https://www.bbc.com/news/ world-africa-53754751 

2. Ramsar Sites Information Service. (n.d.). Retrieved September 07, 2020, from https://rsis.ramsar.org/ris/1744 

3. Dahir, A., & Peltier, E. (2020, August 14). 'This Is Unforgivable': Anger Mounts Over Mauritius Oil Spill. Retrieved September 07, 

2020, from https://www.nytimes.com/20 20/08/14/world/africa/mau ritius-oil-spill.html 

4. Menendez, E. (2020, August 27). At least 24 dead dolphins wash up on Mauritius beach after oil spill. Retrieved September 07, 2020, from https://metro.co.uk/2020/08/2 7/least-24-dead-dolphins-wash -mauritius-beach-oil-spill-1318 7517/

About the Author

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Sukriyo Chakraborty is an undergraduate sophomore at the Indian Institute of Science, Bengaluru. A very passionate Chemistry and Biology enthusiast, he also enjoys reading, listening to classical music and Rabindrasangeet in his leisure time. He's also committed to science communication and outreach, and is a part of various IISc initiatives to popularize science and take science to the masses.