Between 75,000 and 100,000 people took to the streets of the Mauritian capital, Port Louis, on 29 August in a rare display of public anger at the government’s handling of the oil spill caused by the Panamanian-flagged Japanese bulk carrier MV Wakashio, which ran aground on a coral reef in a protected marine area on 25 July.
Initial public concern at what many see as the government’s slow response to the situation escalated further on 6 August, when, twelve days after it ran aground and with few obvious steps seeming to have been taken by the authorities in the intervening period, approximately 1,000 tonnes of fuel oil began flowing from the stricken vessel into the Mahebourg Lagoon at Pointe d’Esny, on the south-eastern coast.
In response, volunteers from around the country pitched in to help clean the area’s previously pristine beaches. Matters reached a new level when the carcasses of dolphins and melon-headed whales (a related species), began washing ashore [in French] from 26 August.
In reaction to those distressing scenes, the damage to local livelihoods and perceived government inaction and secrecy, local maritime security expert Bruneau Laurette called for a march to pressure the government of Prime Minister Pravind Jugnauth into the public release of all information relating to the sinking.
Mr Laurette’s call evidently resonated with a public shocked and angered by the devastation. Public demonstrations are rare in generally very peaceful and prosperous Mauritius but, on the day, up to as many as 100,000 people marched peacefully through the streets of the capital. They were joined by marchers, many from the Mauritian diaspora, in locations as far afield as London, Paris, Montreal and Perth.
Waving the national flag, many of the Port Louis protesters called for the Prime Minister to resign. Mr Jugnauth has refused to do that, saying that his government and he had managed the situation correctly. Autopsies conducted so far on the 47 dead marine mammals by the government-run Albion Fisheries Research Centre reportedly do not indicate the presence of oil and the deaths have been described by the Mauritius Marine Conservation Society as an ‘unfortunate coincidence’.
Mr Laurette, however, claims that the government has not been entirely honest with the public about its handling of the sinking and, on 1 September, filed a complaint against the Port Master and the Director of Shipping of the Mauritius Ports Authority.
The captain and the first officer of the Wakashio have been arrested by the Mauritian authorities and charged with endangering safe navigation. The vessel is thought to have run aground due to having deviated from its intended route from Singapore to Brazil due to poor weather in the vicinity of Mauritius. According to the Panama Shipping Registry, the vessel made that change on 25 July (it ran aground at 19.15 hours local time). Interestingly, however, satellite-monitored transponders show that the ship actually changed course at 02.00 hours on 21 July, putting it on a collision course with Mauritius. The satellite monitoring indicates that the Wakashio continued to travel on the same new course and at the same speed right up until it hit the reef.
Although registered in Panama and owned by Nagashiki Shipping, the Wakashio is operated by Mitsui OSK, the world’s second-largest shipping company. The insurers, Japan P&I Club, are likely to face a bill of at least US$500 million.
Another protest march is planned for 12 September in the town of Mahebourg, located on the south-east coast. Locals there, already reeling from the loss of the tourism industry due to Covid-19, have been hit again by the ban on coastal fishing in the area, which has forced the closure of the local fishing industry. Both tourism – which was earmarked for a possible restart in September – and fishing stand to be affected by the longer term ecological effects of the oil spill.
Although Japan has reportedly indicated that it will respond to Mauritian requests for compensation by contributing US$34 million to the clean-up efforts, which would also go towards the purchase of 100 new fishing vessels, neither government has commented officially on any such agreement. Such silence will probably exacerbate the sense of a lack of transparency among the various authorities and organisations involved in the clean-up held by many Mauritians. It is a perception that the turnout for last weekend’s protest would seem to confirm. In the months ahead, the Mauritian Government is likely to find that it may need to devote as much effort to restoring the good will of its citizens as to ecological restoration.