Steve August 19, 2020

The captain of a tanker that struck a coral reef in Mauritius has been arrested after the vessel spilled oil over the nearby pristine coastline causing an environmental emergency, officials said Wednesday.

The Japanese-owned MV Wakashio ran aground July 25 and began spilling oil Aug. 6. It broke in half Saturday.

The size of the leak, around 1,000 metric tons, is not among the largest spills in history. But its location — an environmentally protected ecosystem of biodiverse reefs, endangered animals and plants, mangrove forests and turquoise lagoons — means it has already caused untold damage that experts say could take decades to reverse.

On Tuesday, officials announced the captain and first officer had been arrested and charged with endangering safe navigation.

“After having been heard by the court they have been denied bail and are still in detention,” Inspector Siva Coothen told Reuters.

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The government has said it is investigating what caused the ship to hit the reef.

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Meanwhile Wednesday, two specialist companies, the London-based International Tanker Owners Pollution Federation Ltd and France’s Le Floch Dépollution, joined a clean-up effort that already includes officials from France, India, Japan, the United Nations and European Union.

They will join a thriving grassroots effort headed by local residents, who have built 2.5 miles of makeshift floating barriers called “booms” in an attempt to halt the oil’s path.

Workers collect leaked oil at the beach in Riviere des Creoles on Saturday.Fabien Dubessay / AFP – Getty Images

Most of the ship’s cargo has been pumped safely out of the vessel — recovering some 3,000 of the 4,000 metric tons aboard — and most of the oil at sea has been collected, officials say.

The focus now turns to the 20 miles of coastline contaminated by the spill, according to International Tanker Owners Pollution Federation Ltd. The London-based spill response company, known as ITOPF, was hired by the vessel’s insurers, Japan P&I Club, and is working with the Mauritian government.

“Since the risk of further pollution from the vessel has declined, the main focus of clean-up activities has moved to the shoreline,” ITOPF said in a statement. Along with the French firm Le Floch Dépollution it said it had “prepared a comprehensive shoreline clean-up action plan for the affected areas” that was signed off by the government.

The MV Wakashio bulk carrier broke into two parts Saturday.AFP – Getty Images

But for this island nation of 1.3 million people, many experts fear the environmental and economic damage may be long lasting — if not permanent in some areas.

Spilled oil bleaches and eventually kills reefs, potentially creating a devastating knock-on effect for the fish that depend on the coral in this fragile ecosystem.

Local fishermen have not been able to work the contaminated waters, not to mention the possible visual impact for a country that relies on tourism for 11 percent of its GDP.

Reuters contributed to this report.

Image: Alexander SmithAlexander Smith

Alexander Smith is a senior reporter for NBC News Digital based in London.

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