Dead whales wash ashore as Mauritius grapples with oil spill

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FLOREAL, Mauritius – Bodies of whales, turtles and other sea creatures washed up on the coast of Mauritius, five weeks after a ship carrying thousands of tonnes of oil ran aground off the island of the Indian Ocean.

Fishermen told NBC News they found melon-headed whales near where the Japanese-owned MV Wakashio crashed into Point D-Esny reef off the Little South Coast -est of the nation July 25. two parties 11 days later. It was deliberately sunk on Monday.

“I know the spill is responsible for their deaths,” said Yannick Fine, 33, adding that some of the whales were pregnant because it was the season for them to breed and feed their young.

“They were frolicking next to my boat,” he added. “Now they are dead. I saw their mouths covered with oil, I know the spill is responsible for their deaths.

Stephan Gua, a member of activist group Rezistans ek Alternativ, said he and other members saw dead creatures floating in the water earlier this week. Others found alive had “blood around their mouths,” he added.

A dolphin carcass is found near the water in Grand Sable, Mauritius, Wednesday. Reuters

Images shared on social media and published in the local press show the mutilated bodies of whales, some with blackened mouths. Other reports indicate that sea turtles, fish and crabs have been found dead on the coasts of the country.

“It’s devastating and these deaths are just the beginning,” said Vassen Kauppaymuthoo, oceanographer and managing director of privately held Delphinium Ltd.

“The situation will gradually get worse. We are only seeing the tip of the iceberg, ”he said, adding that many dead animals“ were said to have been eaten by the sharks or sunk to the bottom of the sea.

Shark bites seen on some whale bodies indicated that they had been weakened by pollution, he said. “They must have suffered for a long time,” he said.

He added that it was “very difficult to believe that anything other than the oil spill” and the scuttling of the MV Wakashio could have caused their deaths.

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The vessel was carrying around 4,000 metric tonnes of oil, 3,800 tonnes of ultra-low sulfur fuel oil and 200 tonnes of diesel when it ran aground, owner Tokyo-Mitsui OSK Lines Ltd said in a statement earlier this month. .

While the government said it was able to pump much of the fuel to smaller tankers, some erupted from cracks in the ship, stranding the island’s turquoise waters and threatening its coral reefs, its protected lagoons. and its coastline – vital for the country’s main industry, tourism.

More than 880 tonnes of oily waste was collected at 14 sites, according to a United Nations report.

Hundreds of volunteers also joined citizens’ efforts to contain the spill, which UN satellites said had “severely affected” more than 18 miles of the small nation’s coastline.

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The captain and first officer were arrested on August 18 and charged with endangering the navigation safety of the ship, which broke in two and was deliberately sunk by the Mauritian government on Monday.

The decision was condemned by Greenpeace which called for investigations into the way the ship was handled.

“Considering how quickly the decision was made between dismantling the vessel and starting towing, we find it highly unlikely that any polluting content has been removed,” the organization said in an open letter on Monday.

Oceanographer Kauppaymuthoo said it was “very difficult to believe that anything other than the oil spill and scuttling” could have caused the deaths of animals found on the shoreline.

However, Mauritius Fisheries Minister Sudheer Maudhoo disagreed with that assessment, telling a press conference on Wednesday that he had been told the deaths were unrelated to MV Wakashio.

NBC News has independently and repeatedly approached the government for comment.

Autopsies on some of the creatures are underway and many are wary of the government’s assessment, including Carina Gounden, a member of Aret Kokin Nu Laplaz, an environmental association of citizens and non-governmental organizations on the island.

“They are insulting our information,” she said, adding that the government had been “too rushed” to conclude that there was no link between the ship and the deaths of the animals.

“I spoke to people across the coast,” she says. “They say it’s definitely abnormal.”

She added that the government had not been transparent enough in its response.

“In Mauritius, we have the feeling that everything has not been told to us,” she said. “That there is a cover-up. “

Kauppaymuthoo admitted that the authorities had played down the gravity of the situation.

“There is a lack of transparency and coordination,” he said. “We need a smooth and efficient recovery. I would recommend bringing scientists together to form an independent scientific body.

“The more time we waste, the greater the impact on the environment and we have to be prepared for new horrific events to come,” he added.

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