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Explained: How severe was the Mauritius oil spill?

Mauritius oil spill: A Japanese ship named M V Wakashio, which is owned by Nagashiki Shipping and operated by Mitsui OSK Lines Ltd, struck a coral reef resulting in an oil spill of over 1,000 tonnes into the Indian Ocean.

Oil leaks from the MV Wakashio, a bulk carrier ship that ran aground off the southeast coast of Mauritius, Tuesday August 11, 2020. (Gwendoline Defente, EMAE via AP)

A week after Mauritius declared a national emergency over an oil spill near its coast, Prime Minister Pravind Jugnauth Thursday announced it had been cleaned up. The accident had been traced to a Japanese ship, anchored off the southern part of the island nation in the Indian Ocean. It had raised concerns over the ecological damage caused to the region.

What caused the Mauritius oil spill?

A Japanese ship named M V Wakashio, which is owned by Nagashiki Shipping and operated by Mitsui OSK Lines Ltd, struck a coral reef resulting in an oil spill of over 1,000 tonnes into the Indian Ocean. The ship was carrying an estimated 4,000 tonnes of oil.

How does the oil spill compare to others around the world?

The BBC reported that rather than the size of the oil spill, it was the area where it happened which was a cause for concern. The accident had taken place near two environmentally protected marine ecosystems and the Blue Bay Marine Park Reserve, which is a wetland of international importance.


Some of the world’s largest oil spills include the Persian Gulf War oil spill of 1991, when more than 380 million gallons of oil was poured into the northern Persian Gulf by Iraq’s forces.

The 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico is also considered to be among the largest known accidental oil spills in history. Starting April 20, 2010, over 4 million barrels of oil flowed over a period of 87 days into the Gulf of Mexico.

Satellite images show a dark slick spreading in the turquoise waters near wetlands that the government called “very sensitive.” (2020 Maxar Technologies via AP)

In 2016, a United States Geological Survey (USGS)-NASA study found that the 2010 oil spill led to “widespread” shoreline loss along the heavily oiled areas along Louisiana’s coast. “Erosion rates were highest along shorelines documented with heavy to moderate oiling, and were lower along shorelines that experienced low oiling,” a USGS release noted.

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How dangerous are oil spills?

Oil spills affect marine life by exposing them to harsh elements and destroying their sources of food and habitat. Further, both birds and mammals can die from hypothermia as a result oil spills, according to the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). For instance, oil destroys the insulating ability of fur-bearing mammals, such as sea otters. It also decreases the water repellency of birds’ feathers, without which they lose their ability to repel cold water.

Debris in Riviere des Creoles, Mauritius, Sunday Aug. 9, 2020. (Sophie Seneque via AP)

How are oil spills cleaned?

There are a few ways to clean up oil spills. including skimming, in situ burning and by releasing chemical dispersants. Skimming involves removing oil from the sea surface before it is able to reach the sensitive areas along the coastline. In situ burning means burning a particular patch of oil after it has concentrated in one area.

Releasing chemical dispersants helps break down oil into smaller droplets, making it easier for microbes to consume, and further break it down into less harmful compounds.

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Anxious residents have stuffed fabric sacks with sugarcane leaves in an effort to stop the oil spill from reaching their shores. (2020 Maxar Technologies via AP)

Natural actions in aquatic environments such as weathering, evaporation, emulsification, biodegradation and oxidation can also help reduce the severity of an oil spill and accelerate the recovery of an affected area. But these occur differently in freshwater and marine environments, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) notes in a report on oil spills.

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