As controversy continues to surround the experimental ship oil that was spilled across 125 square kilometers of Mauritius’ coral lagoons this August, new evidence is emerging of the long term impacts from this oil.
There are fears that this type of oil could cause irreversible damage to Mauritius delicate coral reefs, critical for most of the island’s biodiversity, artisanal fishing communities, tourism as well as coastal protection along the Eastern Coast of Mauritius.
Once a year at the first full moon in late October or early November, the coral reefs in the Southern Hemisphere experience an important spawning event. When this occurs, the blue lagoons of Mauritius turn a bright pink, full of the eggs and sperms of healthy corals attempting to reproduce and grow. It occurs when the temperature of the ocean rises as the Southern Hemisphere moves from Winter to Summer, and this triggers the maturity of the reproductive cells of corals.
It is a phenomenon that can even be seen from space and is described by the BBC as ‘one of the greatest shows on Earth.’
All major healthy coral reef systems in the Southern Hemisphere around the world experience something similar, as seen here from the Great Barrier Reef in Australia.
However, this year, rather than the translucent pink that is associated with healthy coral sperm and eggs, footage released over the weekend reveals that the ocean is full with a thicker, stickier, more viscous substance, that is more opaque. These are images are from the Mangrove Forests of Pointe Jerome next to Ile aux Aigrettes, and 2 miles from the location of the oil spill (much of which is still off limits to visitors).
The imagery and footage does not appear to be the same healthy reproductive cells as Mauritius is used to seeing (video below from the 2018 spawning event).
Mauritius coral reproduction (Blue Bay Marine Park, October 2018)
Reproductive cell samples from this year have been sent to laboratories, but once again, independent scientists are not being allowed access to the testing or results, amid results that are being tightly controlled by scientists from the Government of Japan and large Japanese corporate presence on the ground in Mauritius.
Similar secrecy surrounded the necropsies of the 50 dead whales and dolphins (which have not yet been released), raising fears about just how toxic this new type of ship oil could be.
Over a month after the oil spill, thousands of sea creatures were found dead in the small coral atoll of Ilot Brocus, five miles away from the grounding of the Wakashio.
This comes as environmental NGOs try to protected dozens of the world’s most endangered species on a network of outlying island nature reserves, some of which had to be airlifted for safety.
Ten unanswered questions from Greenpeace
International environmental group, Greenpeace have marked 100 days since the oil spill by taking out adverts in the largest newspapers in Mauritius calling for greater transparency and for ten questions to be answered by both the Government of Mauritius and the polluting entities.
In detailed analysis of the oil released for the first time last week, scientists from the U.S. and Australia revealed the oil was unlike anything they had ever seen before, with chemical signatures they found ‘unusual’ and ‘surprising.’
However, they had only been handed samples that were ten days old, rather than fresh samples from the ship, raising questions about what is so secretive about the oil that the shipping company does not want to be fully analyzed.
Role of Japanese shipping giant MOL under scrutiny
The Japanese bulk carrier, the Wakashio ran aground in July, and 12 days later began to spill between 210,000 and 300,000 gallons of oil into Mauritius’ coral lagoon (the Japanese shipowners have still not revealed how much oil was leaked).
The vessel was being leased by the world’s second largest shipping line, Japan’s Mitsui OSK Lines (MOL). MOL continues to deny they have any legal responsibility for the grounding of the Wakashio.
This is despite MOL being responsible for setting the course of the vessel to and from Brazil, paying for the fuel, inspecting the vessel, and having a major safety center in Tokyo that was responsible for tracking whether any vessel operated by MOL was ever of course or off trajectory (as the Wakashio was for four days as it headed toward one of Mauritius’ most important coral reefs).
MOL have refused to answer a set of questions sent by Forbes about MOL’s processes for route planning and vessel inspections.
Wakashio oil impacting critical coral reproductive processes
The once-a-year coral spawning event is critical to the health of Mauritius’ coral reefs and in recent years has been a sign that the coral reefs of Mauritius were rebounding in health. If the coral spawning was not to successfully take place this year, there would be severe consequences for a range of secondary species that depend on a healthy coral lagoon. Mauritius had seen coral reefs that were more resilient than reefs elsewhere in the world, given the impact of the climate crisis on these fragile ecosystems that are responsible for a quarter of all marine biodiversity.
If the fuel was found to be disrupting the coral spawning event, this would be very serious indeed.
Scientists had been arguing in the early days of the oil spill in August, that bacteria around the corals need to be collected to identify any changes brought by the oil spill, as an early warning indicator. However, the clean up operation led by scientists from the Government of Japan and the vessel’s insurer, Japan P&I Club, have repeatedly ignored this scientific advice.
Japan’s own approaches have been criticized for trying to obfuscate the scale and exact nature of the harm caused to Mauritius.
This raises serious questions both about the motivations and capabilities of the teams sent to Mauritius from Japan, when local and other international scientists had been developing a more comprehensive oil spill response.
Spawning occurs when corals release sperm and eggs into the ocean. The eggs float toward the surface of the water, and the sperm swim to find and fertilize them. Once fertilized, the eggs develop into coral larvae before settling down on the seabed to start a colony of their own.
These usually occur when the temperatures of the Indian Ocean start to warm sufficiently to allow the reproductive cells to mature.
They also tend to occur just after the full moon, when tidal conditions are the calmest and allows eggs and sperm to float freely rather than just wash up onto shore.
These complex biological processes were only discovered in 1981 and even more recently, scientists from Australia discovered that corals’ DNA are sensitive to blue light, which is how they are able to respond to the lunar cycle.
This phenomenon is visible by satellite.
Once a year, this phenomenon is attended by thousands of islanders in Mauritius, where the blue waters of Blue Bay Marine Park in the South East of the country turn a rose pink.
Wakashio unleashed six forces to attack the coral reefs
With new evidence of the coral spawning being disrupted, there is added frustration at the role of the Japanese scientists in Mauritius, who have sidelined local efforts to monitor the impact on the reefs.
Coral spawning is a well known phenomenon in Mauritius, and there had been concerns about the health of the coral reefs around the Wakashio since the grounding in July. The disruption of the annual spawning event now adds to the massive pressures already caused by the Wakashio on Mauritius’ reefs.
There are at least six pressures unleashed on Mauritius’ coral reefs by the Wakashio.
1. Direct impact of the stern of the vessel grinding away at the corals. Already an area over 1 kilometer has been destroyed from the Wakashio dragging along Mauritius’ reefs for over 12 days between July 25 and August 6. This destruction could be tracked by satellite. The rear of the vessel (the stern) continues to grind against Mauritius reefs, with the anchors and chains attached by the salvage teams destroying the fragile reefs (as Japanese scientists admitted as early as August). This was one of the most protected regions of Mauritius, and the devastation being caused by this industrial disaster will take decades for Mauritius’ reefs to recover from. Independent local scientists are being denied access to the coral lagoon to see the impact for themselves, so are relying on satellite analysis and other sources.
2. Sediment impacting visibility for over 1 kilometer from the impact site. In addition to the physical action of the grinding, the sediment from the coral reefs can be seen drifting over 4 kilometers along the reefs. Japanese scientists already revealed that 1 kilometer away from the Wakashio wreck, visibility had been reduced by 75% due to the crushed coral sediment now spreading in the once crystal-clear, pristine waters. This will have severe impacts on coral reef’s abilities to reproduce using photosynthesis. The extent of this sediment concentration should be measured daily, but it is clear from satellite tracking that scientists sent by the Japanese Government, or the Japanese insurance company, Japan P&I Club have not been undertaking daily collection of this sediment data. For a global biodiversity hotspot, this shows a disappointing disregard for the environment and marine biodiversity following such a major oil spill.
3. Impact of the heavy oil on the seabed. The third pressure on Mauritius’ coral reefs came from the large amount of heavy ship oil (between 210,000 and 300,000 gallons of heavy, experimental ship oil) which was spilled directly onto the coral reefs. Scientists have still not revealed the extent of oil tar balls on the reefs and how much was saturated between the seagrass, coral reefs and mangroves over each day, so the impact could be assessed independently. As the oil used in shipping is heavy and thick (residual oil left over after the oil refining process), it tends to sink and will be found around the base of the corals in that region, posing a menace to marine wildlife and local fishing communities for years to come.
4. Chemical reaction of the oil on the reefs. U.S. and Australian scientists are starting to unlock the secrets of the mysterious experimental ship fuel oil that was used to power the Wakashio. It turns out that unknown chemicals – potentially plastics – was being mixed with the fuel, and the chemistry is unknown and unlike any oil spill ever seen before. With each passing day, the chemistry is changing and becoming more toxic. The longer oil stays in the ocean, the more it breaks down and its chemistry changes with pressures from water temperature changes, exposure to oxygen, ultra violet light from the sun and other weathering from the waves. This makes the oil break down into smaller molecules and becomes what is known as ‘more bioavailable.’ This means the smaller oil molecules are now more likely to be absorbed by living organisms like the coral polyps. As smaller sea creatures start to consume this oil, the concentrations of cancer-causing chemicals such as PAH and BPA (if plastics was indeed mixed with the oil) accumulate in certain species. This would make the entire region toxic for larger sea mammals and humans for many years (there are major risks to human reproductive, heart, lung, brain and other critical bodily organs). This is why it is so critical to have a comprehensive set of fuel samples from the Wakashio analyzed to understand the risks. All the international organizations on the ground in Mauritius are aware of this, so it is particularly concerning that such a widespread collection effort has not been ongoing. Unless there was something in the oil that was not meant to be discovered.
5. Cleanup operation. In addition to the direct and chemical impacts of the oil on the coral reef, the clean up operation paid for by insurer, Japan P&I Club and overseen by French company, Le Floch Depollution and Dubai-based Greek company, Polyeco. There has been no independent scientific oversight of their work, even though the spill occurred in some of the most unique ecosystems in the world. There was a series of mysterious harmful algal blooms around the island never seen before (including within Blue Bay Marine Park), soon after the clean up operation began. Leading U.S. marine toxicologist, Dr Riki Ott, had warned that such harmful algal blooms could be a prelude to a phase-change in the coral reef ecosystems that could kill most of the reefs in a region. She had seen such harmful algal blooms where chemical and biological agents were used in oil spills without proper supervision. The harmful algal blooms has brought about an angry reaction from many independent scientists in Mauritius, such as the former President of Mauritius Dr Ameenah Gurib-Fakim – herself a leading international biodiversity scientist – who has called for urgent meetings with all international organizations operating in Mauritius and is insisting on full accountability for their conduct and actions in the country.
6. Climate crisis. On top of all the pressures by the oil spill, coral reef ecosystems were already facing pressures from the warming and more acidic waters due to the climate crisis. Around the world, coral reefs and the ocean are on the front lines of climate change, and Japan has been reluctant to reform its shipping industry toward more sustainable fuels to address this. Japan chairs the IMO’s influential climate and marine pollution committee (MEPC), and have been notorious for undermining climate and sustainability pledges. This led to protests outside Japan’s Embassy last month in protest at their stance at London-based UN shipping regulator, the International Maritime Organization (IMO). Knowing the impact of climate change on oceans, one would have thought Japan would have been more sensitive about the impact of a major oil spill in an area of global biodiversity.
Japan under fire
Japanese Government scientists are once more in the firing line over their conduct following the major oil spill in Mauritius.
Respected scientists from other countries have been prevented from assisting Mauritius with the oil spill response and environmental rehabilitation, creating tension among Government agencies around the world.
The oil spill from the large Japanese Bulk Carrier this summer occurred in a network of highly protected coral reefs in Mauritius, including Blue Bay Marine Park.
In recent years, the coral reefs in this region have seen a resurgence and was being particularly closely monitored. Many of the independent experts have been excluded from the current monitoring efforts following the oil spill, in preference for scientists from Japan who do not know the local ecology.
Unknown effect of experimental ‘Frankenstein fuel’
Since August, marine biologists had been warning about the risks of the oil on the fragile coral reefs and calling for proper biological sampling to take place.
Scientists from around the world, including the United States, UK, France, Australia, Canada, had offered their assistance to support Mauritius with the baselining.
However, a combination of the IMO and several large Japanese corporate and Government interests have presented the oil response as a largely Japanese affair. As a result, scientists with deep knowledge of the coral lagoons and biodiversity of Mauritius have been excluded from the scientific baselining.
The South East Coast of Mauritius is one of the most protected regions in the Indian Ocean for coral reefs. Blue Bay Marine Park and a network of coral that has a 1000 year old brain coral and 38 unique species of coral, one of the most diverse concentrations in the world.
To date, the Government of Mauritius or Japanese Scientists are yet to share photos of the 1000 year old brain coral that was the center of Blue Bay Marine Park, since the oil spill, raising fears about the state of its health.
Local leaders calling for accountability
When asked about the discoloration of the coral spawning, former President of Mauritius and leading international biodiversity scientist, Dr Ameenah Gurib-Fakim, said
“Mauritius depends on its coral reefs for coastal protection, fisheries, tourism, and biodiversity. They are critical to our environment and economy, particularly in the South East of the country where the oil spill occurred.
Each year, we’ve seen our coral reefs grow back with strength as this part of the country had corals that were strictly protected such as Blue Bay Marine Park. The thick oily substance on top of the reproduction of the coral this year is of deep concern.
This is doubly frustrating as Mauritius was offered some of the best marine and coral scientists in the world. Why have they not been allowed to conduct proper surveys of the coral reproduction. It appears that non-Japanese scientists have been elbowed out and now Mauritius does not have the right scientific expertise to understand the impact of the oil on the reefs. There needs to be accountability for the actions that were and are being taken to our country.”
Potential greenwashing by Mitsui OSK Lines
This latest environmental disaster follows the deaths of over 50 whales and dolphins around Mauritius in the immediate aftermath of the oil spill in August. Scientists were prevented from conducting a full baseline analysis of marine mammals at that point or even assessing how many more whales and dolphins had died off shore and drifted away from the coast of Mauritius.
Japanese shipping giant, MOL, sits on the board of the Japan P&I Club. They have a strong vested interest in the outcome of the investigation into the scale of the devastation caused to Mauritius’ coral reefs.
Rather than address the science, the operator of the vessel, Mitsui OSK Lines, who now have a dedicated office in the country and over 32 staff in the country, have preferred to run origami lessons at local schools.
Even the solutions that they have proposed have no bearing on Mauritius’ needs. In September, MOL had sent a $125K container for refrigeration even though fishermen were banned from the lagoon. Many fishermen had moved toward small scale shellfish and crab aquaculture to rehabilitate the lagoons.
The CEO of Mitsui OSK Lines then talked about using ‘artificial intelligence’ for coral reefs in a press conference on September 11. However, upon further questions about the nature of the A.I. for corals, MOL were unable to give any further details and pointed to a small Japanese company with unproven technology that had not been tested in the wild.
From this, it is clear that MOL is completely out of its depth with knowing how to respond to the oil spill. This is surprising given the number of shipping incidents MOL has been involved with in the past decade.
It is the coastal bacteria that would have made all the difference and where the A.I. should have been applied. Any local biodiversity specialist could have shared where the cutting edge knowledge is on coral reproduction. Rather than MOL attempting to use ‘artificial intelligence’ for coral reef regeneration, the people of Mauritius would have preferred plain and simple intelligence in the response to this oil spill.
This is just the latest set of missteps by Japanese interests in Mauritius, whose actions now seem to have caused more damage, rather than support the environment and coastal communities around Mauritius.
The fundamental principle is if a corporation caused pollution in another country, they are responsible for a full understanding of the extent of the damage and restoring the environment to the way it was before the incident.
Diluting the science by only funding a fraction of what is needed to conduct an baseline assessment is at the very least, unethical. It could be considered far worse.