Mauritius is dealing with an ecological disaster after a grounded Capesize bulk carrier broke in two spilling fuel oil into a marine fauna-rich lagoon
The 203,000-dwt bulk carrier Wakashio, chartered to MOL, crashed on the reef in the Indian Ocean on 25 July, in what authorities believe was a navigational accident, and spilled more than 800 tonnes of oil.
Two salvage tugs – Malta-flagged 2007-built Boka Expedition and 2005-built Boka Summit – towed the bow section and sank it 16 km south east of the island, according to satellite imagery from Maxar Technologies.
There are fears the wreck has been disposed of in what is a nursing ground for whales during the southern Indian Ocean migration season.
Wakashio was owned by Changfeng Steamship subsidiary Okiyo Maritime, managed by Nagashiki Shipping and flagged in Panama.
Nagashiki Shipping confirmed the bow section of the 2007-built and 299.5-m long ship had been towed eight miles offshore.
Environmental NGOs said the area where the bow was disposed of is critical to whales. Greenpeace Africa senior climate and energy campaign manager Happy Khambule said Mauritian authorities had chosen the worst of the available options.
“Sinking this vessel will risk biodiversity and contaminate the ocean with large quantities of heavy metal toxins, threatening other areas as well, notably the French island of La Réunion,” he said. “More pollution further risks Mauritius’ tourist-based economy and fish-based food security.”
Mr Khambule highlighted that the two Maltese-flaged tugs involved in the towage and sinking of the vessel had not abided by maritime legislation. As a party to the London Convention 1972, Malta is required to prohibit and prevent its vessels from dumping waste, including vessels, at sea, if polluting content has not been removed to the maximum extent, said Mr Khambule.
Wakashio’s stern section remains on the reef and is being overcome by the sea as the clean up of spilled oil continues in the Mahebourg Lagoon and shoreline.
Nagashiki Shipping indicated this section would be removed from the reef when conditions were ready. “Regarding the stern part of the hull, the relevant authorities and a team of experts continue to study the removal plan,” it said.
“We will continue to work with the people of Mauritius and the relevant Japanese authorities to resolve the situation and investigate the cause as soon as possible, and do our utmost to protect the environment and prevent the spread of oil spills.”
Mauritius Government has created an online platform enabling locals to submit claims for any losses from the bulker’s accident and oil pollution.
Every claim made therein will be channelled to the shipowners and insurer, Japan P&I Club, for assessment and approval. All claims should be substantiated by clear documentary evidence.
The State of Mauritius holds the Wakashio shipowner and insurer liable for all the losses and damage caused outside the ship by contamination resulting from the escape of bunker oil from the ship and the cost of preventive measures sustained.
For future recovery, the United Nations has started a fund to support the Mauritius Government and local communities, particularly the fishermen whose livelihoods are affected by this oil spillage.
This comes as Mauritius police arrested the captain and chief officer from Wakashio for jeopardising safe navigation, as part of its investigation into the cause of this accident.
Nagashiki Shipping confirmed the arrests and said it would “continue to support the crew and their families while awaiting future judicial decisions”. It apologised for the accident and promised to continue supporting the clean up.
“We sincerely apologise for causing a great deal of inconvenience to everyone involved, including everyone in Mauritius, due to this grounding accident and oil spill,” said Nagashiki Shipping. “We will continue our efforts to collect the spilled oil and minimise the damage to the environment.”
According to local reports, central criminal investigators are examining the captain’s mobile phone amid unsubstantiated claims Wakashio’s route deviated from the planned voyage to obtain better phone signal.
Mauritius Coast Guard contacted crew on Wakashio several times to warn them of the imminent grounding danger, but these communications were ignored and the ship crashed into the reef on 25 July.
News from 17 August
The 203,000-dwt bulk carrier Wakashio, chartered to MOL, crashed on the reef in the Indian Ocean on 25 July, in what authorities believe was a navigational accident, and started spilling its fuel oil in early August.
Based on reports from the vessel’s shipmanager, Nagashiki Shipping, between 800-900 tonnes of fuel oil may have spilled from the vessel, blackening the pristine shoreline of the Mahebourg Lagoon, close to Pointe d’Esny, in southern Mauritius.
Nagashiki Shipping said on 16 August Wakashio was carrying around 3,894 tonnes of very low sulphur fuel oil (VLSFO), 207 tonnes of diesel oil and 100 tonnes of lubricant oil when it ran aground. Of this, about 3,000 tonnes of oil was recovered from the vessel and transferred to small tankers by salvors before the ship broke apart.
“At approximately 14:00 local time on 15 August, a crack in the cargo hold number eight to the stern side progressed. This caused the vessel to break,” a statement from Nagashiki Shipping said. “An amount of unrecovered oil is believed to have leaked out of the vessel,” it confirmed.
Mauritius National Crisis Committee said special focus was on protecting sensitive sites such as the Blue Bay Marine Park, Ile aux Aigrettes and the Pointe D’Esny National Ramsar Site.
Deputy prime minister Steven Obeegadoo said on 14 August around 3,300 tonnes of fuel oil had been recovered in total, mitigating the impact on the marine environment.
“The impact of the oil spill on the fauna and flora on our seas will be assessed and a strategy will be developed accordingly,” said Mr Obeegadoo.
Attorney general Maneesh Gobin said a preliminary inquiry into the navigation accident was ongoing. Its findings will determine the terms of references, which would be wide in scope, to be put forward to a court of investigation.
“Our government will do whatever it takes to assist all those who are affected by this ecological catastrophe,” he said. “Government will endeavour to restore, reconstruct and repair the damages caused by the wrecking of Wakashio and an appropriate strategy is being elaborated to come up with adequate solutions,” he said.
France, India and IMO have sent assistance to the Government of Mauritius for cleaning up pollution and preventing further environmental damage.
IMO, with the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and United Nations Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) joint environment unit, has deployed an oil spill response expert to assist salvors.
In addition to rescuing crew, salvage teams have worked to limit environmental damage from the incident by depositing booms around the damaged ship.
Salvors have removed fuel and lubricant oil from the bulker, which was on a ballast voyage from China to Brazil when it crashed into the Indian Ocean island, despite reports of numerous warnings from the local coastguard.
A towage plan is being implemented to tow the forward part of the vessel out of danger and to a safe location. However, the stern section, including engineroom and fuel tanks, remains on the reef with all of the oil siphoned off, and its salvage could take many weeks due to project complexity and worsening weather in the Indian Ocean.
Nagashiki Shipping said more booms and oil absorption materials had been deployed in an attempt to reduce the environmental impact from the spilled fuel oil.
The Government of India is assisting Mauritius in dealing with the aftermath of the oil spill by providing more than 30 tonnes of specialised technical equipment. Indian Air Force aircraft yesterday delivered specialised equipment for the ongoing oil spill containment and salvage operations, including ocean and river booms, disc and heli skimmers, power packs, blowers and oil-absorbent graphene pads.
India has also provided a 10-member technical response team, consisting of Indian Coast Guard personnel specifically trained in dealing with oil spill containment measures.
This is under India’s strategy to provide humanitarian and disaster relief assistance to its neighbours in the Indian Ocean.
News from 11 August 2020
Nagashiki Shipping said in a statement that “due to the bad weather and constant pounding over the past few days, the starboard side bunker tank of the vessel has been breached and fuel oil has escaped into the sea”.
When it crashed close to the tourist destination of Blue Bay Marine Park, Iles aux Aigrettes, the 2007-built Japanese-owned and Panama-flagged Wakashio was sailing from China to Brazil in ballast.
As the vessel began to break up and spill oil, Mauritius prime minister Pravind Jugnauth declared a state of emergency on 7 August and requested salvage assistance from other nations.
Mauritian minister of environment, solid waste management and climate change Kavydass Ramano said over the weekend, Mauritius was facing an unprecedented environmental disaster. He said around 400 sea booms have been deployed in an attempt to protect the sensitive marine environment where the ship is spilling oil.
IMO is supporting the Government of Mauritius by providing technical advice on oil spill response issues and co-ordinating assistance. It has sought support from UNOSAT for satellite mapping, to provide an indication of the extent of the spill and to inform the response effort.
Alongside IMO and OCHA, the United Nations development Program (UNDP) Mauritius and the International Tanker Owners Pollution Federation (ITOPF) are also mobilising environmental and oil spill experts.
Countries including France, Greece and Japan are also assisting Mauritius, which has activated its national oil spill contingency plan.
Smit Salvage and local firm Celero are on site for environmental mitigation operations and to remove Wakashio from the reef. As of 10 August, tugs Stanford Hawk and Boka Expedition were on site to assist in the salvage project.
Efforts to stabilise the stranded bulker and pump out the oil have so far been hampered by poor weather conditions.
France has committed to sending salvage equipment to Mauritius, including supplies from the French island of Reunion, Mauritius’ near neighbour in the Indian Ocean.
According to local reports, the Mauritius coastguard identified the vessel was headed toward danger when Wakashio was still some 11 nautical miles offshore and contacted the ship’s master several times to alert him of the imminent grounding.
Reports vary as to when the coast guard reached the vessel’s master and whether he was aware of his heading.
Shipmanager Nagashiki Shipping said it “takes its environmental responsibilities extremely seriously and will take every effort with partner agencies and contractors to protect the marine environment and prevent further pollution”.
The company went on to say it was working with the owner and protection and indemnity (P&I) insurance club for the vessel.
“The owner and P&I club have contracted a specialist oil response and salvage team who are co-ordinating with the Mauritian authorities to mitigate the effects of any pollution,” the statement from Nagashiki Shipping said.
Nagashiki Shipping said Wakashio’s crew had been successfully removed to safety, while a team of 11 salvors were on the scene.
Riviera Maritime Media has published the Smart Navigation supplement to Maritime Optimisation & Communications in August 2020