Editor’s Note: Christopher Reddy is a senior scientist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. The opinions expressed in this op-ed are his own. Read more opinion at CNN.
Few sights prompt such dispiriting gut punches as an oil spill casting a blackened pall on pristine waters, beaches, and wildlife. Video and photos from the remote Indian Ocean island of Mauritius, where thousands of gallons of fuel oil leaked from a cargo ship that ran aground recently, stoke a hopeless narrative that a paradise will be forever lost.
But the story doesn’t have to end here – the fate of Mauritius is not cast. I’m a scientist who has studied oil spills all over the world for more than three decades, including the Deepwater Horizon disaster in 2010. I’ve learned that the way an oil spill unfolds is not always simple or straightforward, and the worst-case scenario isn’t a fait accompli.
In fact, assuming that the worst will happen can often make a bad situation worse. And in disasters like these, among the least resilient species in the ecosystem are humans – because unlike clams or tuna, they suffer very real impacts simply by feeling hopeless.
I came face-to-face with those feelings in 2003 when, at the height of my career, I gave a talk about the science behind our knowledge of an oil spill on the Buzzards Bay side of Cape Cod caused by fuel oil from the barge Bouchard 120. I felt good about the information I’d provided to a packed house, until the question and answer session began, and a man asked me a question for which I was utterly unprepared: “When,” he asked, “can I start fishing again to feed my family?”
The MV Wakashio, the Japanese-owned ship from which oil spilled near Mauritius, was carrying about 4,000 metric tons of fuel oil when it struck a coral reef close to the coast on July 25, according to its operator. At first, it would appear as though Mauritius has the deck stacked against it – and it does face some critical challenges. The location of the ship and direction in which the oil is drifting has left little room for winds, waves, and currents to dissipate and dilute the oil or move it away from the coast, and space was tight for responders setting up barriers to protect beaches. The island has limited resources needed to fight the spill, is far from places that can provide supplies, and is relying on international assistance to protect its people and environment.
Mauritius has in its favor the growing international cry for help that is being magnified on social media. The important thing is for people with skills and knowledge to see and hear those cries and to continue to respond in a manner befitting a spill of this magnitude far from the resources that might be available elsewhere.
Efforts already underway appear to be helping. Though the spill began July 25, emergency workers were able to pump almost 3,000 tons of fuel oil out of the ship before it spilled into the ocean, Voice of America reported, citing Mauritius authorities. Curtains of fabric, laid out in the ocean, can help contain the spill. It would appear likely that eventually, recovery workers might use detergents or chemical components to wash oily residues off rocks.
If there is no additional oil left to leak from the vessel, responders will be free to focus on containing what was spilled and removing oiled material, such as beach sands, and washing hard surfaces. At the same time, there is still a pressing need for experienced teams to assess damages and to develop and implement comprehensive, long-term monitoring programs like what we have in the Gulf of Mexico after Deepwater Horizon.
Let’s not give up hope so early and assume Mauritius will be forever transformed into a despoiled wasteland. It is critical that casual observers stay informed about the realities of the situation, rather than abandoning Mauritius’s economy in the faulty assumption that its beaches will be ruined. If those notions become cemented in people’s minds, it will hurt Mauritius’s crucial tourism and fishing industries and could compound the country’s problems by causing longer-lasting economic and psychological harm than the oil spill by itself.
The Deepwater Horizon oil spill spread some 160 million gallons of crude oil along more than 1,300 miles of coastline. It killed enormous numbers seabirds, sea turtles, oysters, marine mammals, and fish larvae. If there was anything we learned from that event, it’s that coordinated, broad-based response on sea, land, and from air is critical in the early days of a spill. To a large extent, we were successful in that Deepwater Horizon occurred in the northern Gulf of Mexico, an area with people and resources well-placed to respond to a spill of that magnitude.
Despite our efforts, of course, there are lingering environmental impacts from Deepwater Horizon and many uncertainties about long-term effects. But to a large extent – at great cost and through yeoman efforts by thousands of people – the beaches and waters are largely clean and wildlife has recovered. (A 2016 paper in Marine Pollution Bulletin noted that “worst-case impact scenarios did not materialize” after that spill, and bird populations and marshes proved resilient.) One exception are deep-sea corals, which grow slowly and could not protect themselves by moving. Another exception is people.
In September 2010, I was at the oil spill crisis headquarters for the Deepwater Horizon disaster in New Orleans when the US Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Dr. Margaret Hamburg reported the overall safety of eating seafood from the Gulf. A few days later in Alabama, I went to a café whose owner refused to serve Gulf fish. “I’m not giving customers a side of cancer,” he asserted.
Even five years later, some of those doubts about the cleanliness and safety of Gulf seafood lingered. Such stubbornly assured that erroneous beliefs can be more persistent than oil. They added to other stressors on many people in the Gulf whose livelihoods depend on tourism and fishing to recover.
Numerous studies of populations who have suffered oil spills show high incidences of depression, severe mental distress, domestic problems, and post-traumatic stress disorder. Those symptoms are precipitated by the violent disruption in their lives caused by the spill. They linger in areas that are written off with worst-case assumptions, but those impacts don’t result in arresting visuals like a pelican covered in oil.
I am in no way diminishing this terrible event in Mauritius. The nation’s people are in a tough spot, and there is still a lot of work to be done. But prematurely proclaiming an irredeemable catastrophe isn’t helpful, especially at this stage of an unfolding crisis. Nature has shown it can be resilient, but it helps if we don’t let our focus on worst-case scenarios stand in the way of us giving it a hand.