A wrecked cargo vessel off the coast of Mauritius has split in two, leaking more fuel into the ocean and exacerbating the worst ecological disaster in the Indian Ocean island’s history.

The Japanese-owned ship, which ran aground on July 25, broke apart on Saturday afternoon. It had already leaked around 1,000 tonnes of fuel into the water over the past three weeks.

Rescue authorities said they had already been able to siphon most of the remaining oil from the vessel’s fuel tanks but the breakage of the ship will further complicate rescue efforts.

The spill has blackened the pristine shoreline of the Mahebourg Lagoon, near Pointe d’Esny in southwestern Mauritius, just as prime minister Pravind Jugnauth is seeking to revive the country’s tourism sector, already battered by the coronavirus pandemic.

Mauritius brought its own Covid-19 outbreak under control at an early stage, but disruption to global travel has meant it was already facing a recession this year. The island’s pristine beaches and coral reefs are a tourist draw.

“What you see at the coast is a black deposit — heavy, thick fuel with a very nasty smell,” said Sunil Mokshanand Dowarkasing, an environmental consultant who has visited the site almost daily since the spill began. “The polluted oil which has reached the shores is very difficult to remove.”

Leaked oil from the MV Wakashio is collected on a Mauritius beach © AFP via Getty Images

The vessel, a bulk carrier named MV Wakashio, was on its way from China to Brazil. Mr Jugnauth has said Mauritius will seek compensation from the ship’s owner, Nagashiki Shipping of Japan, which has also sent people to help with the rescue efforts.

The ship was no cargo when it ran aground and was only carrying the fuel it needed for its journey. It means the spill is much smaller than incidents such as the 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster, when the oil tanker hit a reef off the coast of Alaska eventually leaking 37,000 tonnes of crude into the ocean.

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However, the proximity of the Mauritian spill to the island’s coastline means its delicate coastal ecosystem may struggle to recover, according to Mr Dowarkasing. “The mangroves are heavily impacted, this will be a major challenge to address.”

While initial clean-up efforts were largely run by volunteers and non-profit groups that came to the shoreline to help, access to the area is now restricted after the government took control of the response.

Mr Jugnauth’s government has come under fire from the opposition and activists for its response to the spill who said it could have raised the alarm sooner. Mr Jugnauth has said that the government did its “level best” in difficult conditions. 

Greenpeace Africa, the environmental group, has called for an independent investigation into why the ship came so close to the reef as it crossed the island’s waters, which are on an international route connecting Asia to the southern tip of Africa. 

The spill “is destroying one of the most beautiful places in the world, along with the livelihoods of the people who live there,” the group said in a statement.

Via Financial Times