Mauritius has arrested the captain of a bulk carrier that ran aground off its coast last month, causing a devastating oil spill in one of the world’s most pristine maritime environments.
The Japanese-owned MV Wakashio struck a coral reef off the Indian Ocean island on July 25 and began spilling oil on August 6, prompting the government to announce a state of environmental emergency.
The spill spread over a vast area of endangered corals, affecting fish and other marine life in what some scientists have called the country’s worst ecological disaster. Emergency crews managed to remove most of the ship’s remaining oil before it split in two on Saturday.
“We arrested the captain and his second-in-command today. They were taken to court on a provisionary charge. The investigation continues from tomorrow with the interrogation of other crew members,” police spokesman Inspector Shiva Coothen said on Tuesday.
The two men were charged with endangering safe navigation.
Officials have yet to reveal why the ship, which was making its way from Singapore to Brazil, had come so close to the island.
The Mauritius coastguard had repeatedly tried to reach the ship to warn that its course was dangerous but had received no reply, a maritime official with knowledge of the incident who asked not to be named told Reuters news agency.
“The route set five days before the crash was wrong and the boat navigation system should have signalled that to the crew and it seems the crew ignored it. The boat did also fail to send out an SOS [when it ran aground], and did not respond to attempts by the coastguard to get in touch,” the official said.
The official confirmed that the crew had been questioned about reports they were having a birthday party on board, but said it was not clear yet if the party had been held at the same time that the ship ran aground or earlier in the day.
He also denied media reports that the ship had sailed close to land seeking a Wi-Fi signal, saying that looking for a phone signal would not have required sailing so close to land.
On Tuesday, salvage crews began towing the larger of the two pieces of the Wakashio out into the open ocean where it is to be sunk. The part containing the engine room remains wedged on the coral reef.
The decision to sink the boat was taken on Monday in consultation with French experts who have been sent to assist Mauritius.
“Since oil has been largely removed and the amount of the remaining oil is small, the impact of the operation on the environment is expected to be limited,” said an official from the Japan International Cooperation Agency, part of a team that is also helping Mauritius in the wake of the disaster.
Japan announced on Monday it was sending a second team of seven experts to help clean up the spill, after sending the first team of six people.
The new team, which will depart on Wednesday, will bring special oil-absorbent materials donated by a Tokyo-based company.
“We want to help local people who are struggling to remove oil,” said Yuki Takenoshita of M-TechX, which developed the material made of polypropylene which can absorb 1,200 litres of oil.
Scientists say the full impact of the spill is still unfolding but the damage could affect Mauritius and its tourism-dependent economy for decades.