The Indian Ocean island of Mauritius on Friday declared a “state of environmental emergency” after a Japanese-owned ship that ran aground offshore days ago began spilling tonnes of fuel.
Mauritius Prime Minister Pravind Jugnauth announced the development as satellite images showed a dark slick spreading in the turquoise waters near environmental areas that the government called “very sensitive.”
Mauritius has said the ship was carrying more than 3,600 tonnes of fuel and cracks have appeared in its hull.
Jugnauth earlier in the day said his government was appealing to France for help, saying the spill “represents a danger” for the country of about 1.3 million people that relies heavily on tourism and has been hit hard by the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Our country doesn’t have the skills and expertise to refloat stranded ships, so I have appealed for help from France and [French] President Emmanuel Macron,” he said.
Bad weather has made it impossible to act, and “I worry what could happen Sunday when the weather deteriorates,” he said.
Jugnauth provided a photo of the vessel, the MV Wakashio, showing it tilted precariously.
“Sea rough beyond the reefs with swells. Ventures in the open seas are not advised,” the Mauritius Meteorological Services said.
Video posted online showed oily waters lapping at the shore as people murmured and peered at the ship in the distance.
Online ship trackers showed the Panama-flagged bulk carrier had been en route from China to Brazil.
The French island of Reunion is the closest neighbor to Mauritius, and the French Ministry of Europe and Foreign Affairs said that France is Mauritius’ “leading foreign investor” and one of its largest trading partners.
“We are in a situation of environmental crisis,” Mauritius Minister of Environment, Solid Waste Management and Climate Change Kavy Ramano said, calling the Blue Bay Marine Park and other areas near the leaking ship “very sensitive.”
After the cracks in the hull were detected, a salvage team that had been working on the ship was evacuated, Ramano told reporters on Thursday. About 400 sea booms have been deployed in an effort to contain the spill.
Government statements this week said the ship on July 25 ran aground and the National Coast Guard received no distress call.
The ship’s owners were listed as the Japanese companies Okiyo Maritime and Nagashiki Shipping.
A police inquiry has been opened into issues such as possible negligence, a government statement said.
Tonnes of diesel and oil are now leaking into the water, Greenpeace Africa climate and energy manager Happy Khambule said in a statement.
“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,” Khambule said.
A government environmental outlook released nearly a decade ago said Mauritius had a national oil spill contingency plan, but equipment on hand was “adequate to deal with oil spills of less than 10 metric tonnes.”
In case of major spills, it said, assistance could be obtained from other Indian Ocean countries or from international oil spill response organizations.
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