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Environment

Captain of Japanese ship arrested over Mauritius oil spill

Mangrove forests unlikely to recover fully for decades

Bulk carrier ship MV Wakashio can be seen from the coast of Mauritius on Aug. 16. The grounded Japanese ship has split apart, with fuel spreading into the turquoise waters.    © AP

TOKYO -- The captain of the Japanese bulk carrier that ran aground off the coast of Mauritius and spilled about 1,000 tons of oil into the Indian Ocean has been arrested, an attorney for the ship's owner told Nikkei on Tuesday.

Sunil Kumar Nandeshwar, a 58-year-old Indian national, was charged with endangering safe navigation. He appeared at a district court in capital city Port Louis, the BBC reported, but it is unclear whether he has admitted any wrongdoing.

The Wakashio, owned by Nagashiki Shipping and operated by Mitsui O.S.K. Lines, struck a coral reef off the coast of Mauritius in late July. The accident damaged a fuel tank, with more than 1,000 tons of the vessel's roughly 4,000 tons of oil since leaking into the ocean.

Local police have questioned crew members. There have been reports of a birthday party on board the day of the accident, and of the ship possibly navigating closer to the coast so as to pick up a Wi-Fi signal.

Nagashiki Shipping and Mitsui O.S.K. Lines said they did not know the details of the captain's arrest.

A team of experts, including officials from Japan's foreign ministry and coast guard, has been conducting research and advising on oil recovery efforts. Most of the oil that spilled into open waters has been recovered, the experts said Tuesday.

Military personnel sent by France from its territory of Reunion to Mauritius have helped set up barriers to prevent the oil from spreading.

Volunteers help to clean up the oil spill off the coast of Mauritius.

But removing the oil from Mauritius' wetlands and mangrove forests has proved extremely difficult, given that the use of chemicals that break down the oil could harm the ecosystem. 

"Based on research into past oil spills, it will take more than 30 years under the best-case scenario for Mauritian mangrove forests to return to previous conditions," University of the Ryukyus professor Yasuhiro Kubota said. They could die off completely if they absorb too much toxic substances from the oil.

Oil has completely covered mangrove roots 20 cm to 30 cm away from the water's edge, according to a Japanese team dispatched there.

Most spilled oil can usually be cleaned up using vacuum systems. This is not an option in mangrove forests, with their trees' tangled roots. "We cannot remove all of the oil this way," a Japanese expert said.

Among the methods being considered now are manually cleaning the spill with oil absorption sheets or washing it away with high-pressure machines.

It will take half a year at the very least, according to Japan's Maritime Disaster Prevention Center.

The longer the cleanup, the more the local environment stands to suffer. The waters surrounding Mauritius are home to roughly 1,700 different species, including 800 fish, 17 marine mammals and two turtles, the BBC reports, citing the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity. A representative from the Mauritian Wildlife Foundation said the spill has already had a severe environmental impact, saying there are dead fish floating in the ocean and birds covered in oil.

The Wakashio split into two Saturday, and the bow, mostly filled with cargo, was towed off the coast. According to the Japanese expert team, the Mauritius government has ordered a salvage company to pull the bow out to sea subsequently and allow it to sink, although the location has yet to be decided.

Apart from Mitsui O.S.K. Lines, the Indian government, at Mauritius' request, has also offered materials and machinery to help with the recovery effort.

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