Mauritius Oil Spill: Who’s to Blame?

On 25th July 2020, the Japanese-owned oil tanker, MV Wakashio, ran aground on a coral reef two miles off the coast of the small tropical island of Mauritius. On 6th August, the hull of the vessel was damaged by rough seas, leaking around 1000 tonnes of oil onto the surrounding coral reefs. Ten days later, the Panamanian-flagged tanker split into two, further leaking residual fuel onto the coral reefs.

With oil polluting the fragile coral reefs, killing fish and injuring seabirds, the question remains, who should be held responsible for this disaster and how can we prevent a similar disaster from happening in the future?

An easy target is the small island of Mauritius as the oil spill occurred within their territorial waters. Even though the Mauritius government may not be blamed for the initial oil spill, their delayed reaction to the ecological disaster allowed the oil spill to damage the coral reefs beyond repair.

The Japanese-owned shipping company, Nagashiki Shipping, is the owner of MV Wakashio as well as a further 10 vessels. Following the oil spill, the company has apologised for the spill and have asked to help mitigate the impact of the ecological disaster. However, is this enough?

Unfortunately, this is not the first oil spill to have occurred from one of the shipping company’s vessels; On 14th August 2006, Bright Artemis received a distress call from a nearby cargo ship. Again, due to bad weather, the Bright Artemis hit the cargo ship and the hull of the Japanese vessel split, leaking around 4,500 tonnes of crude oil into the Indian Ocean. Despite the fact that the Japanese shipping company has said that they will help with the current environmental crisis, they decided against helping to mitigate the disaster caused by the Bright Artemis spill in 2006; the oil spill was relatively small and wasn’t close to the shoreline.

Nevertheless, oil spills are ecological disasters; they have a widescale impact on fragile ecosystems and their food webs. Therefore, it is not good enough to simply leave remote ecosystems defenceless from disasters such as these, we need to understand why the oil spill occurred and how to prevent a similar future disaster.

On the day of the oil spill, a birthday party was held on board the Panamanian-flagged vessel with theories arising of the ship travelling dangerously close to the island of Mauritius in order to find a Wi-Fi signal.  Furthermore, with the captain of MV Wakashio being arrested upon suspicion of “endangering safe navigation”, it is clear that the Japanese-owned shipping company used a flag of convenience in order to ship cargo on a low-quality vessel with a poorly qualified crew.

By using the Japanese flag for their vessels, Nagashiki Shipping could provide better quality crew and vessels to transport cargo globally. Therefore, oil spills caused by their vessels would be less likely to occur and the environment would be better protected.

So how can we answer this complex question?

It is clear that some countries have a larger stake in the complicated matter, but this ecological disaster is not a new occurrence and therefore, we should look at how this event was able to cause such disastrous results environmentally.

With more shipping firms using flags of convenience and using oil as both a fuel source and trade commodity, it is evident that this disastrous oil spill will not be the last. By using a cleaner alternative fuel source and relying less on oil as a global commodity, the number of oil spills that cause widespread and long-term damage would be greatly reduced. Therefore, our shipping trends and fossil fuel usage need to be drastically reconsidered in order to save vulnerable ecosystems and communities such as the Mauritian coral reef. 

About the Author: Jenny Muckle is an environmental geography student.

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