It has been 43 days since the Wakashio grounding and there is growing anger on the ground at the state of affairs in Mauritius. Restrictions have now been placed along the entire 32km of Mauritius’ East Coast impacted by the oil spill.
Mysterious dark substances were detected this weekend in the once clear waters of Blue Bay Marine Park. Although Government scientists say it is algae, many believe it could either be dead algae or emulsified oil from natural dispersion, both products of the toxic fuel now creating invisible chemical reactions in Mauritius’ coral lagoon, and changing the marine environment.
There has been a growing call for independent science, following earlier outcry when Government officials claimed the 50 dead whales and dolphins that appeared within days of the deliberate sinking the front of the Wakashio, could have been caused by ‘natural causes.’ It is not just the political classes who appear embattled and the target of growing nationwide protests.
The technologies developed for ocean monitoring and oil spill response are much better than the ones currently being utilized by the Japanese Government Disaster Relief Team (actually 1.6 million times better to be precise), so questions are being raised why the Japanese Government are not putting their best efforts into this oil spill response.
Questions are also being raised about the role of the UN shipping regulator, the IMO, in the country, when a video emerged of the IMO’s adviser implying that he was preventing other Governments from assisting the Mauritian Government’s efforts.
In the video that has been widely viewed, the IMO’s adviser and secretary of oil industry group ISCO, Matthew Sommerville says “There’s lots of offers of equipment from overseas, there’s lots of offers of expertise from many nations which want to help. But we don’t want to overload the country [Mauritius] with people coming in.” The IMO have not yet commented on this video.
Some of the latest oil spill detection technologies had been offered to Mauritius by way of country support for the past 43 days, yet there has still been no response from the Mauritian authorities, for technologies that do not even need humans to operate it (so Covid-19 restrictions should not be an excuse). Questions are now being asked whether it is the IMO who have prevented such equipment from being deployed in Mauritius.
Here is an overview of where the frontier of ocean monitoring technologies are, and why it is still not too late to deploy such fleets around Mauritius to ensure the most effective ecological rehabilitation of these unique sites.
1. No hands – an autonomous maritime future
Over 32 kilometers of Mauritius’ coastline have now been declared off limits to local fishermen or tourist boats. Satellite monitoring reveals that there has not been much Government surveying activity happening in this region over the past few weeks.
There are many reasons why this region is being declared off limits – the health risks due to the toxic engine fuel of the Wakashio, or the risk of chemical dispersants aggravating health issues as was seen following the Deepwater Horizon spill. The Government of Mauritius has not shown or explained the precise approach and strategy for the coastal cleanup, despite the offer of assistance from hundreds of the leading marine scientists from around the world, and some important lessons of caution.
One of the leading autonomous vessel companies is San Francisco-based, venture-backed, Saildrone.
The Saildrone autonomous scientific vessels would have been a transformative technology the situation being faced by Mauritius. By being autonomous, it would have minimized human contact, and allowed surveys to be conducted in higher risk areas (such as the among the darker, mysterious substance now seen across Blue Bay Marine Park).
The sorts of sensors and technologies that a technology like Saildrone has means that it can be used for multiple purposes at the same time, from oil spill detection to tracking the health of biomass impacted. Rather than relying on human eyesight to look for oil (surely not the most scientific way in 2020 to manage a major oil spill), the use of such oil spill sensors could have immediately revealed the direction of travel of toxic spills, as was the case in Mauritius that SAR satellite analysis revealed. Even ExxonMobil
With Covid-19, the US Ocean Agency, NOAA found that it was unable to take many crew onto critical fishery survey missions. However, with a deepened partnership with the Silicon Valley based company, they were able to launch more missions during the lockdown and at a fraction of the cost of manned operations across the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans.
Alaskan pollock is the largest commercial fisheries in the US by volume and has an annual value of $1.2 billion. With manned surveys not possible due to Covid-19, Saildrones were mobilized to perform these surveys. “Extraordinary times require extraordinary measures,” said Alex De Robertis, a fisheries biologist at NOAA Fisheries and project lead for the Alaska Fisheries Science Center (AFSC).
2. Data data everywhere!
In recent days, anger has been rising against the capabilities being shown by the Japanese Disaster Relief Team. They have only managed to complete 28 samples in the 43 days since the grounding has occurred.
Videos released by the Japanese International Development Government Agency, JICA, show the team snorkeling, with no robust scientific biological tracking systems in place that is customary following a major oil spill. Just compare this approach to the hundreds of forensic specialists the combing the beaches and collecting samples following the Deepwater Horizon spill.
Saildrones average 600 data samples per minute. That is 2 million data samples per day, which were all stored, and can be sent back to shore any time via satellite. This means that over 43 days, Mauritius could have had 46 million data samples to be processing to ensure this area of pristine biodiversity is protected. Instead, it only has 28.
This is a 1.6 million times difference.
That’s how far off the science being conducted by the Government of Japan is currently off in Mauritius. By comparison, the Mauritian Government confirmed they have 115 fish samples, which is just a fraction of what is needed.
This may explain why there has already been several U-turns by the Japanese Government teams on the true state of marine ecology impacted by the toxic oil spill. With Covid-19 restrictions, the third team of Japanese Government advisors will have to be quarantined for 14 days. A set of Saildrones could have been deployed without any such restrictions and begin collecting critical data immediately of the coast of Mauritius to understand the impact on Mauritius’ coastal marine life, that are important habitats for whales and dolphins.
What possible reason could there be to delay deployment of such technologies, if Mauritius claims to be a leader in the modern ocean economy?
3. Marine biomass – Fish, Whale and Dolphin – sensors
Autonomous scientific vessels have the ability to track marine mammals and biomass at a scale that was previously impossible by humans. This means they can automatically detect the amount of fish and what is going on with fish populations due to both the oil spill as well as botched salvage operation (whose location still remains a mystery and no information on the materials on the vessel has been released).
Somewhere between the oil spill and the sinking of the forward section, around 50 protected whales and dolphins have died and there has not yet been an explanation. The rear of the Wakashio remains grinding on the coral, and the impacts are being seen over 1.5km away with visibility 75% lower among coral reefs that depend on photosynthesis and light being able to travel through the crystal waters. All of this could have been monitored by autonomous technologies to build a full picture of what is happening to this 100,000 year old coral habitat.
Saildrone’s optional payloads means that it can include sensors for fish biomass. These sensors have now been robustly tested in oceans around the world, working with the leading marine scientists at universities like Stanford, and the US Ocean Agency, NOAA. In dozens of published academic papers, they have shown how Saildrone’s capabilities are far superior to trying to manually surveying large areas by hand. These biomass sensors (option 11 in the top diagram) may also be able to show the impact that the harmful PAH and MAH chemicals that are currently impacting marine and human life in Mauritius’ lagoons.
Such toxins are now slowly creeping up the biological food chain on the East coast of Mauritius from small to larger species as they are consumed. The impacts should start to be seen now, and should be actively tracked.
It can even track marine mammals such as the whales and dolphins that are breeding in Mauritian waters at this time of the year. Doing so in a non intrusive way (Saildrones are silent and solar powered, so do not have the same impact as a noisy or polluting diesel-powered speed boat), they are able to collect much better resolution data on what is happening to the marine mammal populations around Mauritius.
Over the weekend, the Mauritian Minister of Environment, ‘Kavy’ Ramano, appeared in a widely viewed video on social media, pleading that he is doing as much as he can. However, not completing a robust scientific baseline is a major omission. There are already legal cases against two Ministers – the Mauritian Minister of the Environment and the Minister for Maritime Affairs – have been filed in Mauritius highlighting such omissions.
4. Maritime safety
Mauritians were shocked when it was revealed that such a large vessel as the Wakashio had traveled the distance it had without being intercepted.
The maritime safety expert who has emerged as the unifying face of the protest movement in Mauritius, Bruneau Laurette, has also been highlighting the challenges with the Mauritian Coastguard and support vessels around Mauritius.
The sinking of a Mauritius Port Authority tug with the loss of four crew (three confirmed deaths and the captain is still missing) could have been avoided if more autonomous technologies had been adopted for such dangerous missions.
Just four scientific vessels from Saildrone was all that would be needed to monitor and patrol Mauritius’ main island, in each of the four main tourist zones of the North, East South and West coast. Separate vessels could also be deployed to some of Mauritius’ outlying islands such as Rodrigues, Agalega and St Brandon, among others to assess the impacts of marine life.
Instead, in previous set of Government budgets, Mauritius spent $33 million in three years on Indian-made fast-attack boats, an Indian-made turbo-prop maritime surveillance aircraft (called a Dornier) as well as other maritime surveillance services.
Autonomous drones could achieved much of the same impact at a fraction of this cost, and potentially been even more effective.
5. Full control of Mauritius’ Exclusive Economic Zone
The Mauritius Government has been criticized for purchasing outdated and expensive technology that did not work as it should. Despite over $33 million spent, there were excuses that there was not enough fuel in the helicopters, aircraft that could not operate at night, and patrol boats that were out of position.
Mauritius has an area four times that of France or half the continental United States. 4 coastguard vessels are insufficient to patrol this area (it’s like having 4 sheriff cars for half the US). Autonomous technologies are the only way forwards, and Mauritius had the opportunity to modernize and upgrade its fleet for years.
Mauritius has several outlying islands – Rodrigues, St Brandon, Agalega among others across 2.3m square kilometers. If Mauritius is serious about administering this large maritime area, it must be prepared to invest in the technologies to safeguard these areas. The Wakashio traveled for several days unchallenged onto Mauritian beaches. The country has been calling for radical changes to be made.
In the early days of the spill response, Mauritius’ private drone pilots led a lot of the front line response to oil spill where the Government had been criticized for being slow to react. The adoption of these types of new technologies is central to the sustainable ocean economy of the future.
Mauritius has a golden opportunity to become a regional leader in ocean technologies, both as it recovers from the oil spill and learns to build back better.
In order to do so, a new set of leaders need to understand where the frontiers of technologies are and insist on this sort of capacity building support from countries who understand the potential of this vision. A major oil spill is not the time for scientific jingoism.
The world is on the brink of a major collapse in marine biodiversity made more complicated by climate change. This is a mission for the best minds across the world to come together around, not the bruised (typically male) egos of several nations stuck in the past.
A universe of new ocean technologies awaits
Saildrone’s autonomous scientific vessels are just one of the myriad of technologies that will define a sustainable ocean economy and show what is truly possibly in the next decade.
The future of the sustainable ocean economy is a technological one. It is also one that will value a ‘living ocean economy’ that sees value in the nature and life in the ocean, rather than a ‘dead ocean economy’ that is focused on fossil fuels, extractive industrial fishing and seabed mining.
This exciting new frontier could attract new generation of ocean technologists, just at the time when many youth in Mauritius are looking for directions where to take the country’s economy. This could then be a beacon for the world that other countries would emulate.