The maritime implications of spilling oil in the ocean

May 1st, 2021

Picture source: Gallo Images/Getty

According to Priyanka Ann Saini in the article ‘The Wakashio oil spill in Mauritius – what happened and lessons learnt’ (, accessed 4-4-2021) the MV Wakashio struck a coral reef on 25 July 2020 and subsequently became grounded. Initial reports indicated that there was no oil discharge from the vessel and the Mauritius coast guard immediately made use of booms and other preventive measures in conjunction with the government activating its National Oil Spill Contingency Plan the following day. Things subsequently took a turn for the worse and by 5 August 2020 as minor oil discharge could be seen surrounding the vessel. At this point there was still a strong sense of optimism that the measures already taken were sufficient to mitigate any harm and that ‘the risk of oil spill was still low’.

However, according to Wikipedia (, accessed 4-4-2021), subsequent to the initial assumption of a low-risk events got out of hand. More oil began to discharge from the vessel and the authorities in Mauritius attempted to control the rate of discharge and mitigate environmental harm by isolating sensitive areas of the coast, while awaiting assistance from abroad to remove an estimated 3,894 tonnes of oil remaining on board. The vessel began flooding and sinking after splitting in two. Resulting in at least 1 000 tonnes of oil spilling into the Indian Ocean.

On 7 August 2020, Mauritius authorities declared a national environmental emergency. Minister of Blue Economy, Marine Resources, Fisheries and Shipping, Sudheer Maudhoo, said that ‘this is the first time that we are faced with a catastrophe of this kind and we are insufficiently equipped to handle this problem’. Mauritius pleaded for international help, as the magnitude of the incident became obvious and conceded that the national contingency plan alone was unlikely to remedy the incident (Timothy Walker and Christian Bueger ‘Lessons for Africa from devastating Mauritius oil spill’ (, accessed 4-4-2021)).

Clean up efforts were prevented by strong winds and high waves and information collected by Finnish Iceye satellites reflected an increase in the size of spill from 3,3km2 on 6 August 2020 to 27km2 on 11 August 2020. When the ship split apart on 15 August 2020, there were still 166 tonnes of fuel inside and high waves prevented any further attempts at removing the oil spill. Thereafter, MV Wakashio’s bow was moved into the open ocean and scuttled on 24 August 2020 (Wikipedia (op cit)).

Investigations were subsequently conducted with crew members on board who indicated that the crew had been celebrating the birthday of a sailor on board the vessel at the time of the grounding and the vessel had sailed near shore for a Wi-Fi signal. However, local police refuted these allegations saying that looking for a phone signal would not have required sailing so close to land. The ship subsequently failed to respond to warnings of the errant course.

On 18 August 2020, the ship’s Captain and Chief Officer were arrested on suspicion of negligence in operating the vessel (Wikipedia (op cit)).

Environmental impact

This incident has been widely reported due to the dangers it posed towards the world-famous coral reefs and lagoons. The island is currently struggling with efforts to remedy the incident following the spill which is likely to cause damage to its coral reefs and lagoons (Saini (op cit)).

Oceanographer and environmental engineer, Vassen Kauppaymuthoo, claims just under 50% of the place of incident is covered by environmentally sensitive areas (Wikipedia (op cit)).

Oklahoma State University Ecotoxicologist, Christopher Goodchild, claims that due to the chemistry of the oil and its ability to merge with the surrounding matter, removing the oil will prove difficult (Wikipedia (op cit)).

Media outlets, such as the BBC have reported that the place of incident is a cause for concern. Furthermore, the incident took place in an area, which contributes greatly to the economy of Mauritius and the oil spill is likely to adversely affect the marine scenery and animals. Greenpeace stated that ‘thousands of species … are at risk of drowning in a sea of pollution, with dire consequences for Mauritius’ economy, food security and health’ (Wikipedia (op cit)).

It is common knowledge that these types of spills expose the marine life to dangerous elements and harm their environment (Saini (op cit)). According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration oil spills result in birds and mammals suffering from hypothermia. Furthermore, oil spills harm the ability of mammals to insulate themselves from the cold water. It also harms the ability of birds to repel cold water. Flakes from the coating on the hull toxify the marine fauna and flora on the reef and surroundings similarly to the Great Barrier Reef (Mphathi Nxumalo ‘Port oil spill sparks concerns’ (, accessed 4-4-2021)).

It has been claimed by reputable outlets that the effects of this incident are likely to be felt for decades to come (Wikipedia (op cit)).

The government of Mauritius has claimed that this incident has been the largest disaster the country has had to grapple with and that they are unable to mitigate the harsh effects accordingly (Wikipedia (op cit)).

The country has requested compensation for the damage and are holding the owners of the vessel liable and in terms of the International Convention on Civil Liability for Bunker Oil Pollution Damage, 2001, the owners of the vessel are responsible for oil damage. The ruling treaty for the circumstances of the incident is the Convention on Limitation of Liability for Maritime Claims, 1976, which prescribes a maximum pay out of 2 billion Japanese Yen in the original draft to which Mauritius is a signatory, and 7 billion Yen according to a 1996 amendment signed by Japan.  The vessel is insured for up to US $1 billion and it is expected that there will be some form of payment to assist with remedying the situation. Mauritius has requested Japan for up to $34 million in damages (Wikipedia (op cit)).

The backstory

According to Christian Bueger ‘Mauritius oil spill: Potential government failures should be investigated’ (, 4-4-2021) Mauritius has received significant funding to combat oil spills since the late 1990s. The country has benefited through massive projects, namely the Western Indian Ocean Island Oil Spill Contingency Plan and the Western Indian Ocean Marine Highway Development and Coastal and Marine Contamination Prevention Project.

Since 2016, Mauritius has been warned to be better prepared for maritime disasters of this scale. However, these warnings were ignored. Engineers like Mr Kauppaymuthoo have voiced concern in this regard and have said: ‘The sad thing is that we had a sign four years ago with MV Benita, the ship first grounded at Le Bouchon’ (Saini (op cit)).

Experts have warned that the various maritime zones need to be surveyed to determine how the environmental needs have changed in order to better prepare for a possible disaster. Preventive measures like booms have been encouraged in order to better equip the country to combat these massive spills (Nxumalo (op cit)).

Officials have yet to disclose why the vessel was sailing so close to the island, which is now suffering with an environmental disaster and investigations are currently ongoing and, in the meantime, the ship’s Captain, alongside the Chief Officer of the ship, have been charged under the Piracy and Maritime Violence Act 2011 (Saini (op cit)).

Clean-up measures

There are various ways to address and clean up oil spills, namely –

  • using oil booms;
  • using skimmers;
  • using sorbents;
  • burning in-situ;
  • using dispersants;
  • hot water and high-pressure washing;
  • using manual labour;
  • bioremediation;
  • chemical stabilisation of oil by elastomers; and
  • natural recovery (‘10 methods for oil spill cleanup at sea’, accessed 17-4-2021).


The state requires up-to-date information to plan future responses to similar incidents. Improved access to resources and skills at various levels are required to prevent similar disasters that pose similar or greater threats. Improved accountability and transparency mechanisms are also crucial in this regard. One could argue that as the state had been warned to better prepare for such a catastrophe and failed to do so perhaps that state is not the appropriate custodian of the surrounding ocean. Perhaps it is time to consider the privatisation of the ocean as radical as the idea may seem.

In this instance and under international convention the owners of the MV Wakashio have offered to pay damages to remedy the harm caused by the oil spill. However, in other cases, it might not be as easy to track down the owners to determine liability and recover compensation.

It is time for Africa and their various maritime institutions to evaluate their current models and develop suitable mechanisms and plans in the event of future maritime disasters. This will allow for efficient and timely action when a maritime disaster (such as the current one) happens again. For the time being oil will be shipped and, therefore, Africa and its communities need to be better prepared to deal with any possible incidents that occur. This can coincide with the implementation of the 2050 Africa’s Integrated Maritime Strategy. This strategy aims to allow for results to be reported seamlessly to various organisations at different levels all over the continent and for better collaboration. Another aspect that might assist the continent going forward is a more decentralised model where organisations are more localised instead of a massive body trying to regulate the entire continent thereby allowing these local organisations to be able to deal more appropriately with incidents that are more common to their oceans. These communities will have better insight on how to deal with their oceans and incidents that occur therein than a bureaucratic body far from such oceans with no real insight into the communities, their oceans or the shipping patterns. Relief for maritime incidents are costly, but they are not as controversial as other issues in the maritime industry such as creating security networks and demarcating boundaries.

Nicholaas Kade Smuts LLB (Unisa) LLM (Shipping Law) (UCT) is a legal practitioner at HFG Attorneys in Cape Town.   

This article was first published in De Rebus in 2021 (May) DR 22.

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