"There are very few such marine areas with such rich biodiversity left on the planet. An oil spill like this will impact almost everything there," Dr. Corina Ciocan said

Mauritius oil spill
Mauritius oil spill
| Credit: BEEKASH ROOPUN/L'Express Maurice/AFP/Getty

An oil spill off the coast of the East African country of Mauritius is likely to leave a devastating impact on the surrounding ecosystems, despite being one of the smaller spills in history.

According to BBC News, a Japanese ship named MV Wakashio carrying close to 4,000 tons of fuel (nearly 9 million lbs.) was to blame for the massive spill after it collided with the land at Pointe d'Esny in late July.

Of that fuel, officials believe nearly 1,200 tons (around 2.6 million lbs.) have leaked out of the ship so far, prompting the Mauritian government to declare a national emergency on Aug. 7 while volunteers rushed to help clean up the shoreline, the outlet reported.

The ship, operated by Mitsui OSK Lines, first began leaking oil last Thursday between the mainland at Pointe D'Esny and the island of Ile-aux-Aigrettes, according to BBC News.

The once-turquoise waters turned a black-brown hue as the two environmentally-protected marine ecosystems nearby, as well as the Blue Bay Marine Park reserve, were put at risk.

Mauritius oil spill
Mauritius oil spill

"There are very few such marine areas with such rich biodiversity left on the planet," Dr. Corina Ciocan, a senior lecturer in marine biology at the University of Brighton, told BBC News. "An oil spill like this will impact almost everything there."

Ciocan and other experts explained to BBC News that Mauritius is known for its richness in biodiversity.

Approximately 1,700 species — including 800 types of fish, 17 kinds of marine mammals and two species of turtles — reportedly call the region home, in addition to several plants, coral reefs, seagrasses and mangroves that are unique to the area.

"The wind and the water currents are not helping, they are taking the oil towards the areas that have vital marine ecosystems," Sunil Mokshananda, a former Greenpeace strategist who lives near the oil spill, told BBC News.

"It is not just about the light oil slick you see on the surface of the water caused by the spill," Ciocan added to the outlet. "There will also be soluble compounds from the oil that will dissolve in the water, a mousse-like layer underneath the surface of the water, and then very heavy residues on the bed, so the entire marine ecosystem will be affected."

Experts also pointed out that the coral reefs — which 25 percent of the ocean's fish rely on to survive, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration of the U.S. — are also at risk for coral bleaching.

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The process, which appears to turn coral reefs white, happens when coral polyps get rid of their symbiotic algae after a stress event, the Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary reported.

Without the algae, reefs are considered unhealthy, more susceptible to coral diseases and could eventually die — ultimately harming the rest of the ecosystem that relies on them to survive.

"The toxic hydrocarbons released from spilled oil will bleach the coral reefs and they will eventually die," Professor Richard Steiner, an international oil spill adviser and a marine biologist in Alaska, told BBC News.

"The Mauritian government should do the environmental impact assessment as soon as they can," Steiner continued of the oil spill. "The impact is likely to remain for years."

At this time, it is unclear why the Japanese ship came so close to shore. Officials are reportedly investigating the situation as they continue to remove all the fuel on board the ship.

Akihiko Ono, the executive vice president of Mitsui OSK Lines, recently appeared at a news conference, where he "profusely" apologized for the spill and for "the great trouble we have caused," according to BBC News.