Bunker Spill, Dolphin Strandings Prompt Protests in Mauritius

dolphin mauritius
Courtesy Mobilisation Nationale Wakashio

Published Aug 31, 2020 2:07 AM by The Maritime Executive

On Saturday, thousands of citizens of the Indian Ocean island nation of Mauritius went out into the streets to protest their government's response to the fuel spill from the bulker Wakashio, which went aground and broke up on a reef off Mahebourg earlier this month. 

At least 200,000 gallons of bunker fuel were released into the marine environment as a result of the casualty, and much of it washed into a coral lagoon surrounding Île aux Aigrettes, a popular nature reserve and tourist destination. Since the grounding, nearly 40 dolphins have washed up dead on the shoreline north of the wreck site, sparking concerns that the pollution could be negatively affecting marine life. 

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The outcome of the spill and alleged lack of transparency on the part of the government have prompted marches in the street in Mauritius. On Saturday, an estimated 100,000 people came out to protest an allegedly slow official response to the grounding, and some called for the government's resignation. Mauritian expatriates staged small-scale protests in solidarity, including gatherings in Switzerland, Luxembourg, France, Germany, the UK and Canada.

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Test case for a new fuel

This spill may be qualitatively different from the bunker spills of years past. In a recent statement, IMO told Forbes that it was not certain of the environmental hazards of the fuel the ship was carrying, citing the substance's newness. On January 1, the IMO's new 0.5 percent sulfur cap entered into effect, requiring most vessels to transition to very low sulfur fuel oil (VLSFO). While VLSFO fuel generally complies with specific industry standards, its chemical composition and physical properties vary widely between suppliers - so widely that mixing two batches may lead to operational problems.

"Because this fuel is so new, research has only just been initiated on its fate and behavior in the environment, particularly over a longer period. We know that some of the oil companies are financing research on this, and oil research centers e.g. CEDRE and SINTEF, have initiated work, but we don’t have any concrete information on this as yet, given the relative newness of these bunkers," IMO said in a statement. "In terms of the response related to the release of this fuel, it looks and behaves essentially the same as any other bunker fuel spill. It’s really the longer term fate and effects that are not yet known."