Responding to MV Wakashio oil spill


IMO has joined international efforts to respond to the oil spill involving the bulk carrier MV Wakashio, off the coast of Mauritius. IMO and the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UN OCHA) jointly deployed an expert, who advised the Government of Mauritius on the mitigation of the impacts on the environment and coastal communities.

Click for statement on IMO's role in the response to the oil spill caused by the grounding of the MV Wakashio

1. What is IMO doing in response to the oil spill in Mauritius?

An expert in oil spill response was deployed to Mauritius by IMO and the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UN OCHA), following a request for assistance from the Government of Mauritius. He was on scene between 12 August and 4 September.

The expert's role was to support the Government of Mauritius by providing technical advice on issues related to oil spill response. He took part in a number of field visits and operational meetings and liaised with the various stakeholders involved in the response efforts.

The IMO Secretariat is also supporting the response, by providing backstopping to the IMO expert in the field at the time of his deployment, and has been maintaining close liaison with the affected country, the flag State and technical partners throughout in order to provide support and assistance, as required.   

2. What exactly was the expert's mandate in Mauritius?

The expert deployed by IMO advised on oil spill response and related matters – such as clean-up strategies, communication, guidance for volunteers, incident management, etc. His mandate also included assisting with possible follow-up actions, such as the review of the national oil spill contingency plan.

The expert did not advise directly on matters related to the salvage and disposal of the MV Wakashio, which are managed by the company SMIT Salvage, in consultation with the ship owner and the Government of Mauritius. The expert provided advice only insofar as it was related to oil spill response matters.

3. What do we know about the incident involving the MV Wakashio?

The bulk carrier MV Wakashio grounded on a reef at Pointe d'Ensy, on the south-eastern coast of Mauritius, on 25 July 2020. It was not carrying any cargo, but an estimated 3,894 tonnes of low-sulphur fuel oil, 207 tonnes of diesel and 90 tonnes of lubricant oil were on board. As of 11 August, reports indicated that approximately 1000 tonnes of oil had leaked into the ocean. This figure will be refined as the oil spill response operation progresses.  

An estimated 3,000 tonnes of fuel have been successfully removed from the MV Wakashio before it broke in two parts, on 15 August 2020 – hence preventing further damage to the ecosystem.

The affected area is located in an ecologically sensitive area that includes the Blue Bay Marine Park, Ile aux Aigrettes, and the Ramsar sites.

4. Will there be an independent investigation?

A casualty investigation is mandatory (under the SOLAS, MARPOL and Load Lines treaties) and this should be initiated as soon as possible, in order to understand why the incident occurred and so that IMO can follow up on any recommendations.

Casualty investigations fall under the realm of the flag State – in this case, Panama, which has indicated its intention to proceed with an investigation. The flag State is required to liaise with other interested States and parties, including the coastal State which has been impacted by an environmental damage. The IMO Casualty Investigation Code sets out the process for casualty investigations and can be accessed here.

The cause of the grounding of the MV Wakashio has not been determined yet.

5. How does the liability and compensation regime work?

Mauritius is party to the 2001 Bunkers Convention, which establishes strict liability for the shipowner  for oil pollution damage from bunkers (fuel oil carried by a ship for its own propulsion or operations). However, this liability could be limited by another regime such as the 1976 Convention on Limitation of Liability for Maritime Claims (LLMC 76) or its 1996 Protocol.

The 2001 Bunkers Convention also requires ships to be insured for all related damage and pollution claims up to the limits of liability. The MV Wakashio has a compulsory insurance for material damage and pollution claims of up to 46.5 million SDR (equal to the 1996 LLMC Protocol limits, as amended). Panama, the flag State of the MV Wakashio, is also a State Party to the Bunkers Convention.

Mauritius is party to LLMC 76, which would set the limit of liability for material damage and pollution claims covered in the MV Wakashio case at 13 million SDR. Japan (where the shipowner is established) is party to LLMC Protocol 96, which sets the limit at 46.5 million SDR (equal to the related Bunkers Convention compulsory insurance requirement).

The Government of Mauritius, businesses and individuals will be able to claim compensation following the MV Wakashio oil spill on the basis of the 2001 Bunkers Convention. In case limitation would be invoked by the shipowner in the courts of Mauritius, which is party to LLMC 76 only, a limit of almost 13 million SDR would apply. However, the shipowner may have to establish a higher limitation fund of up to 46.5 million SDR if claims (other than under the Bunkers Convention) are already brought in a state that is Party to LLMC 96, like Japan.

Given that the ship involved is a bulk carrier, international conventions specific to pollution damage caused by oil tankers (such as the International Oil Pollution Compensation Fund regime) do not apply in this case.

6. What do we know about the long-term effects of VLSFO on the environment?

The spill involved a type of fuel known as Very Low Sulphur Fuel Oil (VLSFO) – a blend developed to reduce sulphur oxides emissions in line with a new limit that came into force on 1 January 2020. This new limit, known as IMO 2020, brings significant benefits for human health and the environment.

While new low sulphur oils may have different chemical compositions than their traditional bunker counterparts, they are nevertheless petroleum products that behave in a predictably similar way to traditional bunker fuels. The response to the spill from MV Wakashio has included the use of existing well-established oil spill response strategies and techniques. Their efficiencies was regularly assessed, as would be the case in any spill response, and they have proven effective in responding to this new generation of fuels. The long-term impacts of these new fuels are being further examined by research institutions. 

7. Why was the area not recognised as a PSSA?

Mauritius has not so far applied to designate any area as a Particularly Sensitive Sea Area (PSSA). The decision to initiate such a process is entirely up to the IMO Member State.

The PSSA designation is a tool available to any IMO Member State to enhance the protection of a specific area. The designation has to be connected to specific associated protective measures, which are applied through the IMO regulatory framework, to limit the impact of international shipping on sensitive areas, such as fragile ecosystems.

Associated protective measures can vary from one PSSA to another, as they are chosen carefully depending on each specific situation to provide the best possible balance between protection and shipping needs. They can be any measure available under an IMO treaty, such as ship routeing measures, areas to be avoided and installation of Vessel Traffic Services (VTS).

States can also apply for ship routeing systems to be adopted, without having a PSSA designation.

8. Was IMO involved in the planned sinking of the front part of MW Wakashio?

Decisions regarding salvage operations, including the towing and planned sinking of the bow section of MV Wakashio, are entirely made by the Government of Mauritius, in dialogue with the salvage company and representatives of the ship owner.

Advice from the IMO expert was strictly limited to oil spill response and mitigation measures, whether from the bunker fuel, any other type of oil remaining on board, and any other potential risks of pollution from the response operations. 

After a number of options were considered, the planned sinking of the forward section of the ship at 13 nautical miles in 2000m depth was completed on Monday 24 August at around 3.30PM (local time). The decision was made by the Government of Mauritius in consultation with the salvage company and the authorities of La Reunion, as well as local environmental NGOs, to ensure both practical and environmental concerns were fully taken into account.

9. Under international law, what falls under the responsibility of IMO in terms of oil spill response? Can IMO intervene on its own initiative or force governments to take certain measures?

IMO can only provide support on oil spill response at the invitation of a Member State. The International Convention on Oil Pollution Preparedness, Response and Co-operation 1990 (OPRC 90) includes provisions for requesting the Organization's assistance in the event of a spill, as well as other types of resources, expertise and assistance as may be required. It also provides a framework for facilitating international co-operation and mutual assistance in preparing for and responding to major oil pollution incidents.

The Government of Mauritius is responsible for the decisions relating to oil spill response and salvage of the MV Wakashio, with IMO playing an advisory role. 

10. What is IMO doing to prevent oil spills from happening in the first place, and to assist in contingency planning?

In the case of oil spills, prevention is always better than cure. IMO has adopted a comprehensive set of regulations designed to enhance safety of shipping, to prevent accidents occurring in the first place, and to mitigate the impacts of an accident should one occur. These regulations address everything from construction of ships to safety management to training of seafarers.

The system of mandatory casualty investigation and feedback into the regulatory system is intended to ensure any lessons are learned from a casualty, so action can be taken to better enforce existing regulation, or, if deemed necessary, to update or amend the regulatory framework.

When it comes to pollution preparedness, each year, IMO through its Technical Cooperation Programme, organises a number of workshops around the world to strengthen national capacities and enhance regional preparedness in case of oil spills on topics such as incident management, shoreline response, contingency planning, liability and compensation, transboundary cooperation and waste management.

Additionally, IMO has an established network of experts that can be called upon and deployed – based on a request for assistance by a Member State – to provide advice and technical assistance in the event of an oil spill. 

IMO has also developed and published numerous guides on topics related to oil pollution preparedness to support Member States in preparing for and responding to such incidents. IMO co-sponsors the triennial conference series encompassing the International Oil Spill Conference (Americas)  Interspill (Europe), Spillcon (Asia Pacific), alternating on a three-year cycle, where experts and Government officials come together to share the latest technical information and research relating to oil pollution preparedness and response.

There is therefore a wealth of expertise and experience available to assist in the event of an oil pollution incident.  (Read more here)