A Japanese ship that ran aground on a reef off Mauritius two weeks ago has now stopped leaking oil into the Indian Ocean, but the island nation must still prepare for “a worst-case scenario”, Prime Minister Pravind Jugnauth said late on Monday.
Conservationists said they were starting to find dead fish as well as seabirds covered in oil, increasing fears of an ecological catastrophe despite a massive local clean-up operation that includes making floating booms from leaves and human hair.
Jugnauth said the leak from a damaged oil tank on board the stricken vessel, the MV Wakashio, had stopped but that the ship still had 2,000 tonnes of oil in two other, undamaged tanks.
“The salvage team has observed several cracks in the ship hull, which means that we are facing a very serious situation,” Jugnauth said in a televised speech, parts of which were made available to Reuters news agency by his office.
“We should prepare for a worst-case scenario. It is clear that at some point the ship will fall apart.”
Mauritius has declared a state of emergency and former colonial ruler France has sent aid in what environmental group Greenpeace said could be a major ecological crisis. Japan has also sent help.
Tourism is a major contributor to the Mauritius economy, generating 63 billion rupees ($1.6bn) last year.
“We are starting to see dead fish. We are starting to see animals like crabs covered in oil, we are starting to see seabirds covered in oil, including some which could not be rescued,” said Vikash Tatayah, conservation director at the Mauritian Wildlife Foundation, a nongovernmental organisation.
The nearby Blue Bay Marine Park, known for its corals and myriad fish species, has so far escaped damage, but a lagoon containing an island nature reserve, the Ile aux Aigrettes, is already covered in oil, he said.
At least 1,000 tonnes of oil is estimated to have leaked so far, with 500 tonnes salvaged.
Mauritians are making booms out of sugar cane leaves, plastic bottles and hair that people are voluntarily cutting off and floating them on the sea to prevent the oil spill spreading, island resident Romina Tello told Reuters.
“Hair absorbs oil but not water,” Tello, founder of Mauritius Conscious, an eco-tourism agency, said by phone.
Videos posted online showed volunteers sewing leaves and hair into nets to float on the surface and corral the oil until it can be sucked up by hoses.
A spokesman at Mitsui OSK Lines, which operates the MV Wakashio, owned by another Japanese company, Nagashiki Shipping, told AFP news agency it would send a team of experts as soon as Tuesday if they tested negative for coronavirus.
“Nagashiki Shipping deeply apologise to the people of Mauritius and will do their utmost protect the environment and mitigate the effects of the pollution,” the Wakashio’s owner said in a statement Monday.
Police are expected to take statements from the captain and crew of the Wakashio after launching an investigation. Detectives boarded the ship on Sunday and seized the log book and black box.
Pressure is mounting on the government to explain why more was not done in the two weeks since the vessel ran aground.
Mauritius and its 1.3 million inhabitants depend crucially on the sea for food and eco-tourism, having fostered the country’s reputation as a conservation success story and a world-class destination for nature lovers.
The spill is a double blow for tourist operators who had hoped foreign tourists could soon return.
The Indian Ocean nation has no active cases of coronavirus and had declared a wary victory after a long stretch without any new infections, but its borders remain closed.