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Environment & Wildlife, From the Field

Environmental Devastation in the ‘Jewel’ of the Indian Ocean

September 1st 2020

Tagged: Blue Lagoon, Coral Reef, Indian Ocean, Marine Reserve, Mauritius, Oil-Spill

Will the bad news ever end? For many countries and individuals grappling with political crisis, conflict and social instability, there appears to be no end to the amount of compounding issues that make daily living a barely insurmountable challenge. Life, for much of the world, is a precarious balancing act, where one misstep has potentially fatal consequences. In Mauritius, the consequences of the Covid-19 pandemic continue to feed into very real and present situations, taxing a heavily damaged tourism sector and inflicting unemployment, financial, health, and ultimately ecological issues, because as we know, where there is one aspect of life out of harmony, there is naturally impact on the others. Yet sadly, the Covid-19 pandemic and its apocalyptic associated aspects are in fact old news. For whilst still in the midst of one global disaster, this environmentally important region is forced into the path of yet another. One with different yet equally far-reaching consequences.

Source: European Space Agency

On the 25th July 2020, the MV Wakashio, a crude oil carrying container ship, hit part of the coral reef which surrounds the south-eastern side of the island of Mauritius. The container of 4000 metric tonnes of oil was breached and the deathly, contaminating oil immediately started pouring into one of the planets most bio-diverse hotspots. Staining magnificent shores with pollution and sullying pristine blue waters with a far reaching, fatal, noxious tide. Carrying with it untold immediate, as well as ongoing, damage. 

Within hours, and then days, the sickening slick of oil could be seen covering large swathes of the Mauritius coastline and had made its way into the sanctuary of the Blue Bay Marine Reserve, an area of immense national and international importance and interest. The environmental death toll of this new catastrophe in Mauritius will be impossible to calculate for years as incidents of this magnitude create far-reaching damage to all levels of marine life.

The unrepentant and insidious nature of oil is to smother everything in its grasp, starving it of the ability to move, to breathe. Oil disasters of the past such may have been larger in quantity but the proximity of this disaster to the range of ecological diverse and pristine marine habitats is a terrifying blow to the regions entire ecosystem. The devastating impact of which will be felt for decades to come. This situation has equally hit the economic recovery of Mauritius hard. In spite of asking for and receiving support from the international community and global maritime authorities, the economic impact, following so close on the heels of Covid-19, is another level of disaster.

Local inhabitants to the affected areas and volunteers, both national and onsite international crews, have been working tirelessly, creating makeshift booms of straw, hair, and matting, in-fact anything to soak up the relentlessly creeping tide of oil. Past volunteers to the Blue Lagoon Project have marvelled at the bio-diversity they have witnessed. And so it is a double blow that the very people, who appreciate the incredible wealth of life that the region has to offer are on the front-line seeing it be ripped apart before their eyes. Even the most well travelled amongst them have been astounded by Mauritius’s coral reefs and seen them as “a jewel in the worlds ocean, offering one of the most pristine, and diverse coral reef systems [they] have ever seen”.

Blue Bay Marine parkThe Blue Bay Marine Reserve was, until this recent tragedy, an idyllic area of developing coral reefs, where the breathtaking lagoon in Pointe d’Esny was the mainstay for researchers and volunteers who revelled in the deep, ocean blue and astonishing biodiversity. The island of Mauritius and its neighbouring ecosystems, home to giant tortoises, abundant sea life, and a wealth of botanical species, including lush mangroves, has been a place that tugs on the heart with its expansive beauty, and equally makes demands that it be kept safe at a time when so many areas of the world have been lost to the negative impact of humanity. It is one of the places that has been able to soulfully reflect the world as it was, through its high level of endemic species, and equally reflect the very best that it could be. It has been a place that speaks to the timeless part of our species consciousness.

The wealth of biodiversity in the Mauritian marine environment includes around 800 types of fish, 17 kinds of marine mammals and two species of turtles, according to the UN Convention on Biological Diversity. According to Dr Corina Ciocan, a senior lecturer in marine biology at the UK’s University of Brighton, speaking to the BBC:

“There are very few such marine areas with such rich biodiversity left on the planet. An oil spill like this will impact almost everything there. It is not just about the oil slick you see on the surface of the water caused by the spill. There will also be soluble compounds from the oil that will dissolve in the water, a mousse-like layer underneath the surface of the water, and then very heavy residues on the bed – so the entire marine ecosystem will be affected.”

In the recent past there have been oil spill catastrophes which have wreaked environmental disaster on different areas of the globe, notably the Deep Horizon oil rig explosion which occurred in early 2010 in the Gulf of Mexico, and the Exxon Valdez tanker spill which covered 1300 miles of Prince William Sound coastline in Alaska in 1989, killing hundreds of thousands of sea mammals, birds, and a wealth of marine life. The impact of both of these incidents, alongside the many other smaller, but no less impactful catastrophes, are still being felt. An article by National Geographic earlier this year made for sombre reading, as 10 years on the damage and devastation to the marine environment, caused by Deep Horizon (and the Exxon Valdez over 30 years ago), is still highly visible, unresolved, and fatal for so much of this blue planet.

Sadly, the very structure of the small Republic’s marine environment and the natural forces of wind and wave have been adding to the disaster. “The wind and the water currents are not helping, they are taking the oil towards the areas that have vital marine ecosystems,” Sunil Mokshananda, said a former Greenpeace strategist, who is on an island near the oil-spill site, to the BBC.

Whilst there has been some international assistance to the Republic of Mauritius since it declared ‘a state of environmental emergency’, there is an unbelievable amount of economic and practical assistance that is needed. The WorkingAbroad Blue Lagoon Coral Reef volunteering project in the Marine Reserve is one of many grass-roots projects, which have previously been working on marine stewardship and environmental assessment, and which are now rerouting their resources into the necessary immediate action and assistance to this disaster, not only to the marine environment but also to the people who depend on it.

To donate directly to this disaster fund, safe in the knowledge that your support goes directly to the project and its involvement in taking steps to mitigate and resolve this catastrophe, please click here and here. Every donation provides not only only a financial lifeline, it also represents the recognition of a global connectivity, which now more than ever is vitally important to so many people and communities devastated by recent global and local tragedies. We are a place in our global understanding to know that what effects some ultimately effects us all. 

To make an application for a volunteering position, one which will now have the additional aspect of supporting the long term clean-up of this spill, please find more info here

However you choose to offer assistance it can be in the knowledge that it is directly and immediately appreciated, not only by the generations now but by those that follow. After all, the magnitude of this particular situation is likely to be measured not in months and years, but, sadly, decades, and potentially even centuries.

Written by WorkingAbroad Blog Writer, Rae Hadley

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