Mauritius declares environmental emergency after mass oil spill from grounded tanker

A "state of environmental emergency" has been declared in Mauritius after a ship that ran aground off the shores of the Indian Ocean island began spilling tonnes of oil.

Satellite images showed a dark slick spreading in the turquoise waters near vulnerable environmental areas.

The ship was reportedly carrying nearly 4,000 tons of fuel when its hull cracked.

Prime Minister Pravind Jugnauth said the spill "represents a danger" for the country of some 1.3 million people already suffering from the coronavirus pandemic.

Mr Jugnauth asked France to help the small island nation that relies on its waters for fishing and tourism.

"Our country doesn't have the skills and expertise to re-float stranded ships, so I asked for help from the France and (its president) Emmanuel Macron," he said.

"Bad weather has made it impossible to act, and I worry what could happen Sunday when the weather deteriorates."

Video posted online showed oily waters lapping at the shore. Online ship trackers showed the Panama-flagged bulk carrier had been heading from China to Brazil.

The French island of Reunion is Mauritius' closest neighbour. France's foreign ministry says it is Mauritius's "leading foreign investor" and one of its largest trading partners.

Mauritius' environment minister, Kavy Ramano, said the state was in an "environmental crisis," calling the Blue Bay Marine Park and other areas near the leaking ship "very sensitive".

After the cracks in the hull were found, a salvage team that had been working on the ship was evacuated, Mr Ramano said.

Some 400 sea booms have been deployed in an effort to contain the spill.

The ship ran aground on 25 July and the National Coast Guard received no distress call, a government statement said, adding that police are investigating possible negligence.

Greenpeace Africa's climate and energy manager, Happy Khambule, said in a statement that tonnes of diesel and oil are now leaking into the water.

"Thousands of species around the pristine lagoons of Blue Bay, Pointe d'Esny and Mahebourg are at risk of drowning in a sea of pollution, with dire consequences for Mauritius' economy, food security and health," Mr Khambule said.

A government environmental outlook released nearly a decade ago said Mauritius had a National Oil Spill Contingency Plan, but equipment on hand was only "adequate to deal with oil spills of less than 10 metric tonnes".

In case of major spills, it said, help could be sought from other Indian Ocean countries or from international oil spill response organisations.