The prime minister of Mauritius has declared a state of environmental emergency and appealed to France for urgent assistance as oil from a grounded cargo ship spilled unabated into the island nation’s protected waters at Port Louis.
Rough seas have hampered efforts to stop fuel leaking from the bulk carrier MV Wakashio, which ran aground two weeks ago and is polluting pristine waters in an ecologically critical marine area off the southeast coast.
“A state of environmental emergency has been declared,” Prime Minister Pravind Jugnauth posted on his Twitter account late Friday.
The tanker, belonging to a Japanese company but Panamanian-flagged, was carrying 3,800 tonnes of fuel when it struck a reef at Pointe d’Esny, an internationally-listed conservation site near the turquoise waters of the Blue Bay marine park.
The environment ministry announced this week that oil had begun seeping from the hull, as volunteers rushed to the coast to prepare for the worst.
Soon, oil slicked the coral reefs, lagoons and white-sand shores upon which Mauritius has built its reputation as a green tourism destination. Aerial images showed the scale of the damage, with huge stretches of azure seas stained inky black by the spill.
A spokesman at Mitsui OSK Lines, which operates the vessel owned by another Japanese company, said fuel was being airlifted by helicopter from the stricken bulker to shore but poor weather was complicating matters.
“We tried to place a containment boom near the ship but it’s not working well due to high waves,” the spokesman told AFP in Tokyo on Saturday. Some of the fuel was in separate tanks and may not be at risk of leaking, he added.
Jugnauth, after touring the disaster site, expressed fears the crisis could worsen with bad weather forecast over the weekend, and made an urgent appeal for help.
“We don’t know what will happen to the boat,” he said.
“The sinking of the Wakashio represents a danger for Mauritius. Our country does not have the skills and expertise to refloat stranded ships, so I have requested the help of France” and its president, Emmanuel Macron.
In a statement Saturday, the French embassy in Mauritius said a military aircraft from the nearby French Indian Ocean island of Reunion would make two rotations over the disaster area with pollution control equipment. Two experts would also be aboard, the statement added.
Twenty crew members were evacuated safely from the ship when it ran aground on July 25.
Ecologists fear the ship could further break up, causing an even greater leak and inflict potentially catastrophic damage on the island nation’s coastline, which forms the backbone of Mauritius’ economy.
Nagashiki Shipping added that it “takes its environmental responsibilities extremely seriously and will take every effort with partner agencies and contractors to protect the marine environment and prevent further pollution”.
Earlier, the environment ministry reportedly said attempts to stabilise the vessel and to pump out the oil had failed due to rough seas.
“This is the first time that we are faced with a catastrophe of this kind, and we are insufficiently equipped to handle this problem,” Fishing Minister Sudheer Maudhoo said.
Police have opened an inquiry into the spill.