Global shipping regulator, London-based UN Agency, the International Maritime Organization released a statement on the effect of the fuel that spilled into the waters of Mauritius from Japanese vessel, The Wakashio, in which they admit they do not know the effects of releasing this amount of fuel (VLSFO) into the biodiversity-rich coral lagoons of Mauritius.
On 19 August 2020, an IMO spokesperson said “because this fuel is so new, research has only just been initiated on its fate and behavior in the environment, particularly over a longer period. We know that some of the oil companies are financing research on this, and oil research centers e.g. CEDRE and SINTEF, have initiated work, but we don’t have any concrete information on this as yet, given the relative newness of these bunkers. In terms of the response related to the release of this fuel, it looks and behaves essentially the same as any other bunker fuel spill. It’s really the longer term fate and effects that are not yet known.” Bunkers are the fuel oil used by ships
Over 1 million gallons of a particular type of ship engine fuel (technical name Very Low Sulfur Fuel Oil or VLSFO) was being transported by the Wakashio, one of the biggest ships in the world when it ran into the coral reefs of Mauritius.
As of 19 August, it is not clear how many gallons had finally been spilled into the pristine coral lagoons of Mauritius.
Very little information has been provided by the ship’s owner or the UN Agency responsible for regulating global shipping, leaving citizens to second-guess what their response should be as they found themselves on the front lines defending their island from the large, dark oil patch that surrounded nature refuges and the old historic city of Mahebourg.
The Black Lagoon
On 11 August 2020, a statement by the shipowner, Nagashiki Shipping, revealed that over 200,000 gallons had spilled into the lagoon and over 450,000 gallons still remained on board. Since that statement, the vessel split apart four days later with overhead imagery and satellite analysis clearly revealing further leakage as the two halves of the vessel drifted apart.
Islanders in Mauritius had been left cutting their own hair and collecting dry sugar cane leaves, to stuff into clothes to make home made oil protection booms and cover the coastline of the affected spill area in a massive voluntary effort.
It has been 26 days since the vessel had grounded off Mauritius on July 25, and despite statements on the IMO website that that Mauritius was its most important priority, there had been no information until today on what the potential side-effects could be of this VLSFO oil.
Such a long silence from the IMO has caused greater confusion among the island where local scientists, NGOs and clean up volunteers had been scrambling in various online forums to find any research of the effect of Very Low Sulfur Fuel Oil in the conditions of the Indian Ocean where Mauritius is located.
With the international regulators not knowing the impact of VLSFO in tropical waters, this raises even more questions about how some of the largest vessels on the planet are allowed to transport this fuel in the more vulnerable single hull designed vessels – vessel types that have been banned from Antarctica but not from equally fragile tropical environments, such as the coral reef ecosystems around Mauritius. In many regions of the world, double hulled vessels are considered the safest way to transport fuel, so that if they get ensnared and dragged along a reef – as was the case with the Wakashio – any split in the side of the vessel would not have been lethal. In the Wakashio’s case, the single hull proved to be one of its biggest vulnerabilities.
One of the key questions that will now be asked during the accident investigation is likely to center around the question: could this ecological disaster have been avoided had the Wakashio been double-hulled?
The Famous Sperm Whales of Mauritius
At the same time as the IMO statement, incredible new footage of the famous sperm whales of Mauritius has been widely circulating online showing their intimate behavior with their calves. The incredible 15 minute video captures the vibrancy and life of the mating families as part of a documentary produced by the French TV channel, France 2 in January 2018, called ‘Mon Ami le Chalot’.
The centerpiece of the video features the free diver, François Sarano, and a pod of Mauritian Sperm Whales whom he individually names as Eliot, Vanessa, Irène-gueule-tordue. In the video, he is seen ‘dancing’ with these incredible creatures that can reach a length of 40 feet and live until the age of 70. Since the Wakashio spill, the fate or health of these pods of Sperm Whales are not known.
Questions about the Whale Protection Zones around Mauritius
Questions are also being raised about the protection zones around the coast of Mauritius after controversy surrounding the planned sinking of the Wakashio. Mauritius is surrounded by two of the busiest shipping lanes in the world. However, satellite analysis reveals that vessels do not slow down when passing Mauritius and heading into these nursing grounds.
Whale strikes are a real risk in many parts of the world, especially during mating season. In Sri Lanka, National Geographic Young Explorer, Asha de Vos, famously identified several new species of whales in 2017 in the Northern Indian Ocean. She also revealed how vulnerable they were to ship strikes in the busy shipping lanes around the large Indian Ocean island just North East of Mauritius.
As a result of the work of Asha de Vos, Sri Lanka has put in place a series of whale protected zones during the sensitive breeding times of the year where global shipping are regulated to reduce speed.
In an industry that had grown four-fold in 20 years and generates over $3 trillion in revenue in 2019, it is unclear how much is given to marine research in sensitive areas, such as around the coasts of Mauritius, to better understand whale mating patterns. The global shipping industry appears to insist on a right to free passage, without appearing to share in any of the responsibility of free passage.
Owner of the Wakashio, Nagashiki Shipping, has been approached about how many whale strikes have involved vessels owned by the shipping company.
Oil drenched turtles
Images were also published in local media in Mauritius of various wildlife that have been suffering amid the oil of the spill, and are now starting to wash up dead along the Mauritian shores.
In a video taken on 17 August and published in local Mauritian newspaper Defi-Media, a dead Green Sea Turtle had washed up onto the Mauritian shore at a location 4 miles North of the Wakashio wreck, close to the village of Bois des Amourettes, where handmade oil protection booms had to be assembled by an army of volunteers to protect the beach from the incoming oil slick. The turtle was drenched in oil in a region of Mauritius where turtles had made a spectacular recovery in the past twenty years with much stricter regulations and enforcement of rules around protection of turtles and their nesting ground, the center point of which had been in Blue Bay Marine Park.
Critical Global Hotspot For Biodiversity
The site of the Wakashio oil spill was in the center of a network of heavily protected turtle nesting grounds along the South East of the country.
As local environment groups and volunteers continue to ask for any information about the risks or toxicity of such a large amount of ‘Very Low Sulfur Fuel Oil’ being dumped into a vibrant coral lagoon, there has only been deafening silence from the ship owners of the vessel that brought the toxic cargo to the shores of Mauritius as well as the rest of global shipping.
Today’s statement from the IMO is raising even bigger questions about governance of the global shipping industry, which continues to depend on toxic fossil fuels, and have shown great reluctance to reform itself.
This comes the day after Sir Richard Branson called for the global shipping industry to do more for the people of Mauritius and to restore and rehabilitate this part of the world as if the crash had not happened.