MV Wakashio Project

Post – oil spill emergency plan: Bringing the affected fishermen and sea users community back to life

The final voyage of the Panamanian-flagged MV Wakashio begins in Lianyangang in China on 4 July 2020. The ship was bound for Tubarão, Brazil with 20 crew on-board and no cargo but having 3,894 tonnes of low-sulphur fuel oil, 207 tonnes of diesel and 90 tonnes of lube oil on board. The ship stopped in Singapore for fuelling on 14 July 2020. While continuing its route, the ship ran aground on a coral reef off the South East coast of the Republic of Mauritius on the evening of 25 July 2020. There were no injuries and the crew members remained on-board. On 28 July 2020, the Minister of Environment in the Republic of Mauritius, Hon. Kavydass Ramano, said there was no oil spill as a result from the incident, but only traces of hydrocarbons in algae over 300 meters away.

Fig. 1: The MV Wakashio on its early stranded phase on the reef before breaking in two.

Meanwhile, the weather started deteriorating with big waves hitting the stranded ship from all direction. On 6 August 2020, oil began to leak from the vessel while Mauritius authorities tried to control the spill by placing oil booms around the site. On 7 August 2020, the Republic of Mauritius declared a ‘state of environmental emergency’ fearing of huge damage to the country’s coastal waters and marine wildlife. On 10 August 2020, about 1,000 metric tons of fuel have already spilled, with estimates of the remaining oil on board ranging from 2,500 to 3,000 metric tons. Meanwhile, inclement weather with high waves triggers worries of a potential vessel crack. On 12 August 2020, in a race against time, an estimated 3,000 tonnes of fuel are successfully removed from the ship. The fuel is transferred to shore by helicopter and to another ship also owned by Nagashiki Shipping.

Fig. 2: The engine part of the vessel starts leaking oil on 6 August 2020

On 15 August 2020, the ship broke in two with 166 tons of fuel on board. Waves of 4.5 metres high hindered clean-up. On 17 August 2020, the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) announced it has deployed an expert, jointly with the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UN OCHA), who was advising the Government of Mauritius on the mitigation of the impacts on the environment and coastal communities. The authorities arrested the bulk carrier’s 58-year-old Captain, charging him with endangering safe navigation on 18 August 2020. The NGO Greenpeace warned of the severe environmental consequences after the government’s decision to sink the front part of the vessel on 19 August 2020. Although the government received a lot of no-goes from different local and international authorities with regards to the sinking of the front part of the bulk carrier, it still pursued its plan to sink it. The sinking of the forward part of the ill-fated vessel was finally carried out on 22 August 2020. A few days later that is between 26 to 28 August 2020, at least 40 dead dolphins gradually washed up on Mauritius’s shore, spurring suspicions that the oil spill and sinking of the front part of the bulk carrier was to blame, with officials characterising the incident as a ‘sad coincidence.’

Fig. 3: A melon-headed dolphin found dead on a beach following the sinking of the front part of the MV Wakashio

An outrage immediately took place among the local population and on 29 August 2020, thousands of people gathered in the capital city of Port Louis to show their anger on the way the government has handled this environment crisis. On 31 August 2020, due to bad weather conditions, a tugboat named ‘Sir Gaetan Duval’ working on the wreck site sank after it collided with a barge it was pulling and three people were killed. This once again created an out roar among the local population in Mauritius. On 8 September 2020, The Panama Maritime Authority, collaborating in the accident investigation, issued the first official statement, attributing the grounding to wrong charts. On 5 Nov, Japanese ship-owner, Nagashiki Shipping, appointed Chinese salvage team, Lianyungang Dali Underwater Engineering, to start the removal operations for the stern of the ship. On 18 Dec 2020, the Japanese Mitsui O.S.K lines, the charterer of the vessel, released internal investigation report on the incident, identifying the crew’s unsafe behaviour was the probable cause of the incident, and issued a series of safety measures to prevent such incidents in the future. The measures announced aim, among others, to address the lack of safety awareness and boost ship operation quality.

Fig. 4: Thousand people protest against the poor government decision following the MV Wakashio oil spill

Since Mauritius was not geared up to deal with a catastrophe of this size, other countries sent experts to help. A French team arrived first, from the nearby island Réunion, to erect ocean booms (floating structures that contain the spill). The United Nations sent a team including experts in oil spills and crisis management. They’ve been working with communities, the private sector and the government to coordinate clean-up efforts. Marine ecologists and others arrived from Japan and the United Kingdom.

On 12 August 2020, two members of the International Tanker Owners Pollution Federation Ltd (ITOPF) arrived in Mauritius to provide on-site technical advice and help coordinate clean-up efforts following the oil spill from the grounded bulk carrier, MV Wakashio. ITOPF was mobilised at the request of Japan P&I Club, the insurers of the vessel, and was working with the Mauritian government, local and international responders, surveyors and all other parties involved in the response operation. 

In response to the call for assistance from the Prime Minister of Mauritius, there was many offers of help from governments, international bodies, agencies and organisations worldwide. Personnel from the French Navy, Indian Coast Guard, Japan Coast Guard Disaster Relief Team, United Nations and European Union were all on-site. The French Navy sent in equipment, including a large multipurpose navy vessel; three aircraft containing spill kit arrived from EPE, the Greek sister company of the local responder, PolyEco; and equipment and personnel have also been brought in by the French responder, Le Floch Dépollution.

Fig. 5: Polyeco team cleaning up Ile aux aigrettes which is a protected nature reserve using high water pressure

Response craft from the coastguard and local contractor were active in the lagoon for the deployment of boom, skimming/pumping operations and waste oil transportation. The booms served the dual purpose of containing the oil for collection by skimmers, and also deflecting it away from sensitive resources, including the Blue Bay Marine Park. The at-sea operation was overseen by the Mauritius Coastguard and Police Force and conducted by the local contractor. The local fishermen also assisted in containment and recovery efforts. In total, almost 4000m of boom was deployed, plus other improvised boom placed at various locations around the lagoon by volunteers and NGOs.

Polyeco was in charge of the cleaning of 17.6 km, at seven different sites including Petit Bel Air, Riviere des Creoles, Mahebourg, Mouchoir Rouge, Iles Aux Aigrettes, and Pointe Jerome and also maintained and rearranged booms as required. Since the beginning of the operations, the company teamed up with the local community which played a pivotal role in these activities. The clean-up operation which started on 25 July 2020 was completed in December 2020. 21km of shoreline was successfully cleaned. Around 300 people were mobilised in this operation.

Le Floch Dépollution started their cleaning operation on 19 August 2020. The villages covered by Le Floch Dépollution were from Riviere des creole to Pointe du diable including bois des amourettes and la case du pecheurs. Le Floch Dépollution managed to successfully cleaned its assigned sites by 9 January 2021.

Fig. 6: Le Floch Depollution Team working to clean up the coastal beach in Grand Sables

Apart from the government, the Mauritians and Private Sectors were also very proactive. In the absence of a coordinated plan or sufficient resources from the shipping company, local volunteers from NGOs and private sectors were forced to step up to protect their island. The self-organized grassroots movement involving local fishermen, residents and NGOs who designed, built and rolled out several miles’ worth of oil protection booms. These booms were hand stitched using materials from local hardware stores and filled with dry leaves from the sugar cane harvest. Local community groups had even discovered that the unique properties of human hair could prevent the spread of oil. When they had run out of hair in Mauritius, they had then reached out internationally to contact hair dressing shops in France and Australia to send over batches of cut hair to trap the oil and act as giant sponges in an effort to prevent the oil from being absorbed deep into the sandy beaches and the internationally protected coastal mangrove forests of South East Mauritius.

Fig. 7: Private sectors and NGOs working together to produce locally handcrafted oil booms using discarded sugarcane leaves and plastic containers as buoys

One of the most active groups in the region during the oil spill was a local Mauritian community group called Rezistans ek Alternativ. They had helped with the spontaneous building of the artisanal oil protection boom movement. People from all parts of the island were flowing in mass to come to dedicated areas set-up specifically for boom making. These people included different NGOs and their members and also several staff of private companies. This movement has never been seen before in Mauritius and this showed the solidarity of every Mauritius citizen whenever there was an ecological disaster. Even the government and police force could not control the people who were working day and night to produce those local booms to protect our shores.

Fig. 8: People from all ages, religion and background were involved in making the artisanal oil booms to protect our coastlines which showed real solidarity in the Republic of Mauritius

In one weekend, they made nearly 80 kilometres of make-shift ocean booms out of cane trash (the leftover leaves and waste from sugar-cane processing) to contain the oil. Empty bottles were put in the middle of the booms to make them float, and anchors were attached to keep them from drifting away with the current. For ten days, people worked night and day to contain as much oil as possible so that it would not reach the shoreline, where it is more difficult to clean. They managed to contain and remove nearly 75% of the spilled oil.

Fig. 9: Ferney site where long artisanal booms were being produced by different inhabitants

Although all clean-up campaigns by Polyeco and Le Floch D’épollution has now been completed the dismantling of the engine part of the MV Wakashio was recently started. The stern removal involved the Hong Bang 6, a crane barge specialised in this type of work and one of three of its kind in the world. The vessel arrived in Mauritius on 10 February 2021 along with the Xin Guang Ha, a semi-submersible heavy-lift ship operated by COSCO Shipping. On 18 February 2021, The Hong Bang 6 barge belonging to the Chinese firm Lianyungang Dali Underwater Engineering, contracted to remove the stern of the ill-fated bulker Wakashio, arrived at the wreck site. The arrival of the barge along with three tugs has set in motion the dismantling operation. The dismantled parts were placed aboard before being sent to Port Louis for a depollution exercise and to be cut into smaller pieces. The parts were then being handed over to Samlo, a local specialist in the recycling of scrap metal. Although the risk of pollution was considered to be low, the Greek firm Polyeco had lined up a skimmer boat on site while anti-pollution booms were installed around the neighboring Blue Bay Marine Park, a designated Ramsar site.

Fig. 10: The Hong Bang 6 starting its dismantling exercise of the stern part of MV Wakashio

The ecological disaster of the MV Wakashio affected 17 coastal villages in the South East Coast of Mauritius. The villages are listed in Figure 11 below. Moreover, a survey done by the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) on the socio-economic and health impact of the MV Wakashio also reavealed that the oil-spill incident has deeply affected the businesses taking place along that coastline. Fishing was banned and fishermen were not allowed to fish in the lagoon. The tourism activity was already affected due to the Covid-19 pandemic but now the oil-spill ecological disaster has worsened the situation. In an effort to help the local fishermen community and other sea users, several measures were taken by the government. The people working in the tourism sectors and fishermen community were all compensated given that they show their tourism registration certificate and their fishermen card respectively. Since many of those people are not registered fishermen and many do not have tourism certificates, they are being ignored by the government as they will not be able to benefit from this compensation. Several organisations and private institution have started alternative livelihood projects to help the affected inhabitants of these villages.

Fig. 11: Showing the list of affected villages by MV Wakashio

Soon after the ecological disaster, EPCO started working on an alternative livelihood project funded by Peace Boat Disaster Relief (PBV) to help the affected sea users communities in those 17 affected coastal villages in the South East part of Mauritius. This project started in 2020 and finished in 2022 due to accumulated delay associated to covid-19 restrictions. The project was a mobile caravan where different exhibits on alternative livelihood were prepared and showcased in different coastal villages affected by the oil spill. The exhibits covered:

  1. Small scale aquaculture demonstration;
  2. Small-scale community-based sustainable agriculture demonstration;
  3. Apiculture demonstration;
  4. Animal husbandry demonstration.