125 Square Kilometers Of Mauritius Lagoons Off-Limits Due To Oil Spill Pollution In Fish

125 Square Kilometers Of Mauritius Lagoons Off-Limits Due To Oil Spill Pollution In Fish

The cleanup of the oil spill in Mauritius is still ongoing amid unanswered questions, an ecological timebomb now revealed to be much worse than officials first disclosed, and indifference by the very international organizations that had been sent in to help. 

It is also the location of a large crime scene – multiple national and international environmental laws have been broken.

The oil and shipping industry appears to hope that the world will move on by and forget Mauritius.

Yet, the stern (rear) of the Panama-flagged, Japanese owned vessel still protrudes from the reefs of Mauritius as a daily reminder of the series of catastrophes that resulted in almost 50 dead whales and dolphins that washed up on Mauritius’ shores in recent weeks. 

Last week, for the first time, the Government of Mauritius published results from testing of fish samples (an action Forbes had been highlighting since the start of the oil spill). Based on these results, an area of the coral lagoon covering 125 square kilometers had been cordoned off.  This covers a length of coastline of 36 kilometers. There was frustration that these results were being announced weeks after the policy decision to close off the coral lagoons on 28 August.

Seafood from this region has now been deemed unfit for human consumption following laboratory tests.

This comes as the operator of the Wakashio, Japanese giant, Mitsui OSK Lines, delivered a refrigerated container to Mauritius for storage of seafood. A simple inquiry into Mauritius would have revealed that the very fishermen this container was aimed for, were the ones who had been prevented from going into the lagoon to fish.   

Rather than being a white elephant, these facilities do now provide scientists in Mauritius with the appropriate facilities to store the large-scale bio-sampling needed for proper scientific assessments from that part of the island, including storing the carcasses of the 49 dead whales and dolphins while waiting for the full autopsy to be performed.

Toxicity reports from the lab in Mauritius

The Government press release shows that fish samples were taken from different species, including shellfish, and were tested in the private laboratory of Quantilab in Mauritius, which is the laboratory responsible for testing of racehorses, an important pastime on the island. The tests conducted on the fish were for Heavy Metals, Total Hydrocarbons (HCT) and Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons (PAHs).

These are now starting to look like more serious tests for an oil spill, compared to remarks from the Government and international organizations early on in the oil spill, that only referred to visually looking for the presence of hydrocarbons in slices of fish.

The biological samples were collected by Mauritius’ national fisheries research center in Albion. 22 sites were sampled in total, according to the press release issued on 8 September 2020.

One month delay

The samples were taken on 14 August and announced on 8 September, despite the private lab being in Mauritius and easily accessible. These tests do not take more than a few hours to conduct, so why the 25 delay between sampling and publicly sharing results?

At a press conference on 28 August, at the same time as the 49 dead whales and dolphins washed up on Mauritius’ shores, the Minister of Fisheries announced the significant expansion of the restricted fishing zones.

The three-week delay between 14 August and 8 September is deeply troubling when near real time, operational information needs to be conveyed to ensure non-Government actors and civil society are able to partner effectively in the post-oil spill response effort.

Inaccurate, restricted and delayed information is part of the reason why so many people in Mauritius have been protesting in recent weeks as trust in the Government has been eroded. This also follows evidence of a major cyber effort launched against environmental and social protestors in the run up to Saturday’s nationwide marches.

Woeful under-sampling

Many international observers are surprised at the woeful under-sampling that is taking place in Mauritius. 21 samples are not even statistically significant to perform any sort of meaningful variance analysis.  Any high school statistics student would know this.

Also, samples only appear to have been collected along the coastline. Where are the samples from within the lagoon from where the 49 dead whales and dolphins had died and drifted toward shore?

All of this is highly surprising when many nations with advanced marine science capabilities such as the United States, Canada, Australia, the UK, ,offered their scientific and analytical support to Mauritius, as well as a large civil society and diaspora community, all of whom appear to have been sidelined by a ‘Government knows best’ approach. 

Even the IMO representative’s claims that ‘Mauritius is overwhelmed’ was surprising to many, such as the former President of Mauritius, a biodiversity scientist, who called this out in a BBC interview early today on 17 September. 

Describing the situation in Mauritius, Dr Ameenah Gurib-Fakim said, “There has not been a unified statement on the situation involving all stakeholders. We know the IMO is in the country. We know there are Japanese Government representatives. We know there are representative from Panama. But we as citizens are being kept in the dark and getting information in bits and pieces from the newspapers. There has not been anything coherent said to us. This is just not right.”

Inconsistent data

It is also interesting to look at the dates of various announcements.   The lab results were based on samples taken on the 14 and 15 August.

At the time, Government and UN agencies had said that oil was only in a very limited areas, and had pointed to UN satellite analysis from UNOSAT that had been produced to show oil mainly around Mahebourg port.

However, the private sector had developed much more advanced machine learning techniques for Synethetic Aperture Radar (SAR) observation that could enhance the power of the satellites beyond just the sensors on the spacecraft.  Using these satellites, from Finish startup, Iceye and analysis from Ursa Space Systems, articles in Forbes at the time showed that the spread of oil had extended much further North to the island if Ile aux Cerfs.

It now turns out that these private sector satellite images have been validated by the testing that took place in the 14 miles North of the Wakashio crash site at the time of the SAR analysis. Fish from Grand Riviere Sud Est, Deux Freres, Trou d’Eau Douce, and even Palmar which is 4 kilometers North along the coast, have found fish that we unfit for human consumption on the 14 and 15 of August, even when Government Ministers and international ‘experts’ had been saying on the record that there was no oil in those locations.

So why is this information only just being released now? How much fish was consumed between the 14 August and 28 August when those regions were finally restricted from fishing activity?

Gestures that are too little too late

On 11 September, operator of the Wakashio, Mitsui OSK Lines offered a large refrigerated container to fishermen affected in the South East. According to the Government of Mauritius, this refrigerated container is valued at $125,000. The loss of tourism and fisheries alone in that part of the island could run into the hundreds of millions of dollars, let alone the loss of unique biodiversity.

Press statements from both the company and the Government of Mauritius indicated that the container was designed to help fishermen store their fish products. 

However, fishermen have been banned from fishing in an area of 125 square kilometers in Mauritius’ largest coral lagoon. 

Perhaps if international organizations had started by asking those in the region what they want and need earlier on, rather than bringing over what they assume they need, the gestures would be a lot better received.

A use for biosampling storage?

Perhaps this container could be put to another use.

It was clear from the early days of the oil spill that bio-sampling (sampling of fish to test for PAHs chemical signatures that originate from oil spills) needed to be significantly increased.

This would be a more prudent use rather than expecting local fishermen to learn how to fish in the riskier and rougher waters of the Indian Ocean beyond the coral lagoon.

The Government of Mauritius had attempted to reached out to the Government of Japan on 1 September for $3 million assistance to upgrade the facilities of the national fisheries research center in Albion. However, that approach had been widely criticized for the lack of transparency and a deal involving an additional $31 million for 100 fishing vessels as well as training for 475 fishermen and 60 captains who ‘were unaccustomed to fishing in rough seas.’

Given the loss of four crew (three deaths and the captain is still missing two and a half weeks on) from the Mauritian tugboat, the Sir Gaetan Duval, there are significant risks for Mauritian fishermen to venture beyond the relative safety of Mauritius’ large coral lagoons.

These are the very lagoons that have been impacted by the oil spill from the Wakashio.

Mysteries remain

It is almost too incredible to believe, but in 2020, some very fundamental facts appear to still be missing from the Wakashio case. 

Here are some of the outstanding information that has still not been provided by the Government of Mauritius, the vessel owner and insurer, or the UN shipping regulator, the IMO.

1. How much oil was spilled in the lagoon?

 The last official statement was on 11 August, four days before the vessel split in two. Not knowing how much oil was in the lagoon is a significant omission. 

It’s coming up to 8 weeks since the incident first began, and this lack of information is deeply troubling indeed.

2. Where was the Wakashio sunk?

There is increasing evidence that several international environmental laws could have been broken with the manner of how the Wakashio was taken to sea and deliberately sunk. This has already been decried by international organizations such as Greenpeace and Sea Shepherd.

On 21 August 2020, in a televised press conference, the IMO representative shared extensive details about the operation to scuttle the vessel, including input from the French Government, implying they could also have knowledge of the sinking of the Wakashio. The French Government has been approached for a comment.

3. How toxic is the oil? 

Very basic questions that were asked to the IMO and vessel owner in the early days of the crash and this still has not been provided. 49 whales and dolphins have died since then. These are internationally protected species. Their deaths sparked national protests in Mauritius, the likes of which have never been seen in the country since independence from the UK in 1968. 

Lack of disclosure by the international bodies on the ground in Mauritius, such as the IMO and ITOPF, has significantly increased political risk by these serious omissions.

4. IMO leaves Mauritius alone to now fend for itself after oil spill? 

The joint UN-IMO mission had already caused significant controversy with its representative presenting several facts incorrectly, such as describing oil as a ‘hand cream’ at a nationally televised event, and forcing the World Health Organization to issue a statement explaining the short, medium and long term cancer causing risks of this sort of oil spill and the sort of public health measures they have started to engage into Mauritius.

In a statement to Forbes on 17 September, a spokesperson for the IMO said “The IMO expert was deployed to Mauritius by the IMO and the UN Office of the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA) immediately, following a request for assistance from the Government of Mauritius. He was on scene from 12 August to 4 September.”

The IMO’s engagement with Mauritius was under the International Convention on Oil Pollution Preparedness (OPRC), and with oil spill clean up still far from over, it is unclear whether the Government of Mauritius has approached the IMO for further support during the clean up phase, or what support the IMO has offered.

Questions will also need to be asked about what sort of legacy the IMO has left behind in Mauritius. Were there a set of best practices that were established? Did local officials feel more empowered to take on the responsibilities and decisions of the next phase of the oil spill response with the right set of tools and frameworks? Was there clear accountability for the decisions and recommendations given by the IMO during its time in the country?

5. Have chemicals been used in the clean up operation? 

There has been significant concern in Mauritius about the clean up techniques, following the appearance of mysterious brown algae on September 5th in Blue Bay Marine Park. This was a very troubling development, and is usually an indicator of more serious underlying risks to the corals from this algal bloom.

New questions have gone out to all the major organizations involved in the cleanup to understand what techniques they had used, but no response has been received. Similarly, the uncertainty about what oil was leaked into the lagoon is causing concern whether this could have been the cause of the harmful algae bloom, that could kill corals in this highly protected area.

Before the algal bloom, on 1 September 2020, in response to a question by Forbes on whether dispersants are being used, George Artemakis, Polyeco’s Director of Oil Spill Response Department, said, “Polyeco will not use any chemical dispersants during the shoreline clean-up operations of the affected areas.”  Another international organization asked Forbes to retract their earlier statements on this the following day.

How can these basic questions be so difficult to answer?  Why are the responses so evasive? The region of the oil spill is an area of extreme environmental sensitivity with some of the world’s most endangered species. 

2020 was meant to be the most important year in international policy for the environment, and yet there is a such a lack of transparency from all of these organizations on the ground – who must surely have mastered digital communication seven months into a global coronavirus pandemic lockdown – that it is their clumsy reactions and response which has proven to be just as troublesome as the initial oil spill incident itself.

The delay in providing this information is perplexing. These are fundamental matters of fact (such as how much oil was spilled into the lagoon) that absolutely should be in the public domain for human and environmental health. 

Villains straight out of a John Grisham novel

The events in Mauritius appear to be something that would be more appropriate featured in the John Grisham novel, Pelican Brief.  Except Mauritius is not a fictional story, and real people are suffering. It is also two decades into the 21st century and technology is a lot more advanced than what was featured in the books and movie of the same name. Amid national protests against the way the oil spill has been handled, a large scale cyber attack using Facebook was discovered, forcing several software giants to investigate.

It is incredible that in 2020, UN Agencies like the IMO, national Governments and the global shipping industry believe it is acceptable to conduct themselves without the accountability, transparency and professionalism demanded by a small island nation who never asked for this oil spill to be thrust upon them, yet are now being asked to shoulder the burden of responsibility to clean this up.

The former President of Mauritius – a nominated, not a political position from an internationally renown female biodiversity scientist – has said that “It is not right.” All the opposition political parties in Mauritius have now been holding joint press conferences, saying it is not right, and denouncing the oil spill response, as the correct venues for accountability – parliament – has been suspended in Mauritius. Over 10% of the island (at least 100,000) are marching on the streets of Mauritius and saying it is not right. Four crew of a Mauritian tugboat have been lost. The indifference of the international community to these calls and to assume that this is an oil spill response which is going well and that does not need to change course, is just as staggering as the Wakashio incident itself.

100 years since the end of indentured servitude

These are coastal villagers who just 100 years ago this year (1920), had fought for freedom from slavery and indentured servitude in harsh sugar plantations, and finally had land and a life for future generations. 

It’s one thing for this future to have been taken from them with a major industrial incident caused by complex rules set in a far-off set of institutions, corporations and countries.

It is quite another to then appear to put profits and the greed of an industry before the needs of the planet, or the very people who are most dependent and caring of it. This is 2020. 

If ever there’s a symbol of a world that needs to change, it is the Wakashio broken and sitting on the coral reefs of Mauritius, being battered by the waves of the Indian Ocean.

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