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Sea life in Mauritius dying as massive oil spill threatens endangered species

Oil spill disaster in Mauritius
Oil spill disaster in Mauritius 00:30

Salvage crews have successfully pumped all the fuel from the tanks of a giant cargo ship which ran aground off Mauritius, the prime minister said Wednesday, preventing another massive oil spill into the pristine waters. However, a variety of sea life around the island is dying and experts have warned the environmental disaster is threatening endangered species that have been re-introduced to the area over the past decades.

Reuters reported that volunteers fished dead eels from oily waters and dead starfish washed ashore in the sticky black liquid. Crabs and seabirds are also dying.

A dead eel is seen floating following an oil leakage from the bulk carrier ship MV Wakashio, belonging to a Japanese company but Panamanian-flagged, that ran aground on a reef, at the Riviere des Creoles
A dead eel is seen floating following an oil leakage from the bulk carrier ship MV Wakashio, belonging to a Japanese company but Panamanian-flagged, that ran aground on a reef, at the Riviere des Creoles, on the Mahebourg waterfront, Mauritius, August 11, 2020. STRINGER / REUTERS

The MV Wakashio spilled 1,000 tons of its 4,000-ton cargo of oil into the sea, fouling the coastline of Mauritius, including a protected wetlands area. That threatens 35 years of work to restore the area, environmental activists said Wednesday.

An estimated 2,500 tons of fuel has been pumped from the ship, stranded on a coral reef at Pointe d'Esny, a sanctuary for rare wildlife. Workers are racing to empty the ship before it breaks up in heavy seas and further pollutes the shore.

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The vessel MV Wakashio, belonging to a Japanese company but Panamanian-flagged, that ran aground and caused oil leakage is seen near Blue bay Marine Park in southeast Mauritius on August 11, 2020. SUMEET MUDHOO/L'Express Maurice/AFP via Getty Images)

"It's essential that the ship is emptied before it breaks up," said Jean Hugue Gardenne of the Mauritian Wildlife Foundation. "Quite a lot of oil has been pumped out in the past few days, but we cannot let up. There is so much damage already."

The wildlife foundation is alarmed that the oil spill will ruin the work that it has done since 1985 to restore that area, Gardenne said.

"We have planted about 200,000 indigenous trees to restore the coastal forest," he told The Associated Press. "We re-introduced endangered birds, including the pink pigeon, the olive white-eye and the critically endangered Mauritius fody to the Isle aux Aigrettes. Now all this is threatened as the oil is seeping into the soil and the coral reefs."

A dead starfish is seen following leaked oil from the bulk carrier ship MV Wakashio, which ran aground on a reef, at the Riviere des Creoles
A dead starfish is seen following leaked oil from the bulk carrier ship MV Wakashio, belonging to a Japanese company but Panamanian-flagged, which ran aground on a reef, at the Riviere des Creoles, on the Mahebourg waterfront, Mauritius, August 10, 2020. STRINGER / REUTERS

Prime Minister Pravind Jugnauth said Mauritius will seek compensation for the extensive environmental damage from the Wakashio's owner, Nagashiki Shipping. He has declared the oil spill a national disaster.

"All the fuel has been pumped from the reservoirs," said Prime Minister Pravind Jugnauth, adding that about 100 tons remained elsewhere on board the ship.  "It was a race against the clock, and I salute the excellent work to prevent another oil spill."

Jugnauth's government is under pressure to explain why it did not take immediate action to empty the ship when it ran aground on July 25. Two weeks later, after pounding by waves, the ship cracked and began leaking.

A GoFundMe has been set up to help the nation address the disaster. 

Some of the turquoise waters surrounding Mauritius were stained a muddy black, fouling mangrove wetlands and drenching waterbirds and reptiles with sticky oil.

Thousands of Mauritians have been working for days to reduce the damage by making improvised booms from fabric and stuffed with straw and sugar cane leaves to try to contain the oil's spread. Others have scooped up oil from the shallow waters. It is estimated that nearly 400 tons that spilled have been removed from the sea.

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A man scoops leaked oil from the vessel MV Wakashio, belonging to a Japanese company but Panamanian-flagged, that ran aground near Blue Bay Marine Park off the coast of south-east Mauritius on August 8, 2020.  JEAN AURELIO PRUDENCE

France sent a naval ship, military aircraft and technical advisers from the nearby island of Reunion after Mauritius appealed for help last week. Japanese experts have arrived on the island and are assisting the effort. The United Nations is sending experts.

The inter-agency United Nations team will "support efforts to mitigate impact of (the) oil spill on natural resources and on (the) population", read a statement from the UN office in Mauritius.

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