Justice for Mauritius: an Oil Spill Not to Forget
Throughout the world citizens are calling for more social justice and are perhaps fueled by reports of other successful protests. As protests erupt throughout the United States calling for justice for Black, Brown and Trans people, protests last week started in the island nation of Mauritius. In the biggest protest the country has seen in recent years, citizens of Mauritius dressed in black, waved their national flag and asked for their government to resign and take responsibility for the 1,000-tonne oil spill that took place on July 25 of this year (1). Many feel that their government did not try to prevent the oil spill, reacting only when the situation was in dire straits. The BBC quotes Mauritius resident Yasine Mohabuth: "They didn't do anything when the ship approached our coastline—12 days they didn't do anything until the oil spill and now
thousands of people and marine people are affected" (1).
Here, I want to explore the recent facts surrounding the Mauritius oil spill, what makes it so serious, and why the world should not forget about this tragic accident.
Author Mark Twain stated “heaven was copied after Mauritius” (5). Known for its extensive seagrass beds, mangroves, Blue Parks, protected coral reefs, and marine reserves, Mauritius attracts divers from around the world to experience its turquoise waters and biodiversity of marine life including 1,700 species with around 800 types of fish, 17 kinds of marine mammals, and two species of turtles (2). And, just like their marine life, the people of Mauritius are a diverse mix of immigrants. The island was not inhabited until after discovery by Portuguese explorer Diogo Fernandes Pereira in 1507 when slaves of French, Creole, Chinese, Hindi, and African backgrounds were brought to this 700-square-mile volcanic island (5). After trading hands between the Dutch, French, and finally British for control of their productive sugar cane industry, slavery was abolished and Mauritius became known as the melting pot of Indo-African culture (5).
In late July, the Japanese ship MV Wakashio, ran aground at Pointe d'Esny, and began leaking 1,000 of its 4,000 tonnes of oil into the Indian Ocean and nearby Blue Bay Marine Park. Nearly two weeks later, the Mauritian government declared a state of emergency and asked for international help to protect its valued natural resources (2). After one week of spilling oil, citizens of Mauritius came together and made 80 kilometers of makeshift ocean booms (used to contain oil) out of trash and recyclables to prevent oil from reaching the shore (3). Yet, last week 39 dolphins were reported dead, with unknown causes (1), and a reported 15 kilometers of coastline are affected (3).
What makes this spill so serious:
At this point, you might be thinking, “1,000 tonnes, that’s not so bad, right? Exxon Valdez was over 37,000 tonnes—cleanup shouldn’t be too bad!” (4) But, there are several other factors involved in this oil spill that make it comparable to some of the bigger oil spills.
First, there’s the location. The MV Wakashio ran aground just north of Blue Bay Marine Park, a Ramsar Convention on Wetlands of International Importance biodiversity hotspot. Additionally, two rivers are located nearby, which brought oil into the brackish ecosystem affecting mangroves (where oil is even more difficult to clean up) and seagrass beds (home to endemic seahorses).
Second, there is the oil type. Different types of oil require different handling and cleanup protocols based on the chemical properties (including hydrocarbons) and weight of the oil spilled. Past oil spills such as Exxon Valdez and Deepwater Horizon haved spilled crude oil, which typically contains lighter, more refined compounds making the oil float (4). Shipping vessels that contain crude oil usually have large volumes onboard making spills like the Exxon Valdez extremely hard to contain. When the MV Wakashio ran aground in Mauritius, it was carrying new, low-sulfur fuel oil that is being introduced to the market to reduce air pollution. (3). Shipping vessels that transport fuel oil (also called bunker oil) typically carry less volume onboard, however, although spills of fuel oil are more frequent, the oil does not float, meaning that spills of this nature usually receive less media attention (3, 4). In fact, heavy fuel oil ships, just like the MV Wakashio, are banned from traveling to Antarctica because of their high spill rate and impact on ecologically important areas. The spill of this new low-sulfur fuel oil is dangerous for many reasons but mostly because its effect on marine life is unstudied (3). The first spill of this kind, currently there has been very little research to the potential short term and long term impacts to economically and biologically important species. Thus, the government of Mauritius, and those helping with the cleanup such as France, must create cleanup protocols based on similar oil spills which admittedly is better, but not ideal in this vital situation.
Third, there is the climate of Mauritius. Located in a tropical region, Mauritius receives high amounts of sunlight all year round. When heavy fuel oil interacts with UV light its chemical properties change, causing it to react and become potentially more toxic to the organisms it interacts with (4). Although the effects of this new low-sulfur fuel oil are unknown, areas of high biodiversity such as the waters of Mauritius may become the testing ground. A 2011 report from the University of California at Davis provides some light on the potential phototoxicity of fuel oil spills.
Why to remember Mauritius:
In a world of instant media, it is impossible to keep up with the latest updates of every news article we scroll by, however if we truly want justice for Black, Indigenous, People of Color, then we need to remember this incident and learn from it. This accident in Mauritius, has shed light on the numerous fuel oil spills that take place every year, in every ocean worldwide but are infrequently reported. Furthermore, this particular incident is evermore important because the island nation of Mauritius contains ecologically important ecosystems such as pristine coral reefs, seagrass beds, and old growth mangrove forests which are declining due to climate change and human encroachment. It is our responsibility, as citizens of the world to preserve these places for the future.
Today, as social justice is receiving more attention, the diverse people of Mauritius should not be forgotten in our continuous media stream. As the effects of sea level rise and climate change impact their island nation, it is our duty to help Mauritians mitigate this issue and prevent it in the future. Last week, as they march in their capital, Port Louis, 39 dolphins are dead and an undetermined number of other species are undoubtedly harmed as well. While it is not the first of its kind, it can be the last. Here are some ways to help out.