The Indian Ocean island of Mauritius is facing an environmental crisis after oil began leaking from a bulk carrier that ran aground in July and started to break up in rough seas.
“We are in an environmental crisis situation,” said the environment minister, Kavy Ramano, while the fishing minister, Sudheer Maudhoo, said: “This is the first time that we are faced with a catastrophe of this kind and we are insufficiently equipped to handle this problem.”
The ministers said all attempts to stabilise the ship had failed because of rough seas and efforts to pump out the oil had also failed. Ecologists fear the ship could break up, which would cause an even greater leak and inflict potentially catastrophic damage on the island’s coastline.
“The ministry has been informed … that there is a breach in the vessel MV Wakashio and there is a leakage of oil,” said an environment ministry statement.
“The public in general, including boat operators and fishers, are requested not to venture on the beach and in the lagoons of Blue Bay, Pointe d’Esny and Mahebourg.”
The carrier, belonging to a Japanese company but Panamanian-flagged, ran aground on 25 July and its crew was evacuated safely.
Images from social media showed a slick of black oil spreading out from the stricken carrier.
The ship had no payload at the time but was carrying 200 tonnes of diesel and 3,800 tonnes of bunker fuel, according to the local press.
Shipping websites say the Wakashio was built in 2007 with gross weight of 101,000 tonnes and able to carry 203,000 tonnes, and a length of 299.95 metres (984 feet).
The grounding happened at Pointe d’Esny, which is listed under the Ramsar convention on wetlands of international importance and near the marine park of Blue Bay.
Anti-pollution systems had been sent to the two sites, the ministry said, adding that the government was asking the French Indian Ocean island of La Reunion for assistance.
Mauritius depends on its seas for food and for tourism, boasting some of the finest coral reefs in the world.
Nagashiki Shipping, which owns the Wakashio, said it was monitoring the situation and salvage efforts were on hold due to poor sea conditions.
“Nagashiki Shipping takes its environmental responsibilities extremely seriously and with partner agencies and contractors will make every effort to protect the marine environment and prevent further pollution,” it said in a statement.
“The cause of the incident will be fully investigated and the owner and manager will continue to work closely with the authorities to determine cause.”