• Jiji, Reuters


Liability for damages is in focus after more than 1,000 tons of heavy oil for fuel spilled from the Japanese-owned bulk carrier Wakashio off Mauritius.

Concerns are growing over the impact of the oil spill on the rich natural environment in the Indian Ocean island country, whose main industry is tourism, while work to remove the oil is under way.

The vessel, owned by Nagashiki Shipping Co., based in Kasaoka, Okayama Prefecture, and operated by Japanese shipping firm Mitsui OSK Lines Ltd., ran aground off Mauritius on July 25. The oil spill was confirmed Aug. 6.

Mauritius’ Prime Minister Pravind Jugnauth said Wednesday that nearly all remaining oil had been removed from the ship.

“At the time I’m talking to you, almost all the oil has been removed from the ship,” Jugnauth told reporters, according to remarks shared by his office.

All fuel had been removed from the tanks, but there was some residue in parts of the ship, his office added.

Tourist operators fear the spill will further damage businesses already reeling from the coronavirus pandemic and could cost jobs if pristine beaches are spoiled.

Tourism generated 63 billion rupees (¥168 billion) for the economy last year. In May, the central bank said that in the past two months alone, the nation had lost 12 billion rupees in foreign exchange due to the fall in tourism.

“It is really going to affect the communities down there, especially for the fishermen, the local guys that live there, you know that’s how they make money from tourists,” said Willow River-Tonkin, who owns a kite-surfing business.

“Taking them out to go diving, to go snorkelling, to go wakeboarding, to go see dolphins and all that sort of thing you know, and all of that is going to affect it, if we don’t get it under control very soon.”

A volunteer cleans oil spilled from the bulk carrier ship MV Wakashio at the Mahebourg Waterfront in Mauritius on Wednesday. | REUTERS
A volunteer cleans oil spilled from the bulk carrier ship MV Wakashio at the Mahebourg Waterfront in Mauritius on Wednesday. | REUTERS

A crack on the ship is growing bigger, raising fears that it may break up and sink or part of it may drift away and damage other areas. Currently, the ship is tied up to a tugboat to prevent it from drifting away.

The oil spill will have a devastating impact on the marine ecosystem there, likely damaging corals and wild birds in a sanctuary.

Nagashiki Shipping will bear the liability for damages as it owns the ship, while Mitsui OSK Lines will be exempted from responsibility.

Two treaties regarding marine accidents require ship owners to purchase a public liability policy, while setting a limit on the amount of damages a ship owner pays.

With the insurance policy Nagashiki Shipping holds, the company is expected to be asked to pay up to $1 billion (¥107 billion), over the oil spill. There is no limit on costs the company has to pay to remove the vessel.

The amount of damages may be limited to about ¥2 billion based on the treaties. But Nagashiki Shipping may have to pay more if its serious faults are found, according to an insurance industry employee.

Nagashiki Shipping may have to pay compensation for damage to wildlife as well as people in the fishing and tourism industries. It is likely to take time to determine the total amount of damages.

Romina Tello, the 30-year-old founder of sustainable tourism agency Mauritius Conscious, said border closures due to the coronavirus had already battered tourism.

Mauritius shut its borders on March 19 and has had only 344 cases of COVID-19, with 10 deaths.

The southeast coast where the oil spill happened is famous for snorkelling, kite surfing, sailing, sea flora and fauna, Tello said.

“We are trying to activate domestic tourism. But now, it is impossible for me to recommend for people to travel to the southeast coast due to the smell and they can’t swim because of the spill,” she said.

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