Life was going well for 39-year-old Mauritian fisherman Bimsen Beeharry when COVID-19 hit in early 2020, prompting authorities to impose a lockdown and suspend fishing. The COVID-19 restrictions were lifted at the beginning of June, but Mr. Beeharry’s hopes were again dashed on 25 July 2020 when a Japanese bulk carrier, MV Wakashio, ran aground on a coral reef near Pointe d’Esny, off the coast of Mauritius.
The vessel spilled some 1,000 tonnes of fuel into the coast of the Indian Ocean island nation famous for coral reefs and tourism. The accident has had socio-economic ramifications for thousands of citizens, says Amanda Serumaga, the UNDP Resident Representative for Mauritius and Seychelles in an interview.
Considered Mauritius’ worst-ever ecological disaster, it reportedly killed about 50 dolphins and several other marine creatures.
The suspension of fishing in the affected region has effectively cut off Mr. Beeharry’s financial lifeline.
The fisher, who lives with his wife, Kovita, and three children in Vieux Grand Port, a coastal village in the south-east of Mauritius, recalls the day the vessel struck the coral reef: “From where we live, we could see that the MV Wakashio had run aground on the reefs.”
“It seemed the vessel would be easy to tow back to the high sea. However, rough sea conditions made towing operations complicated.”
He adds that, “The vessel’s oil leaked into the lagoon and our village was badly impacted. We were shocked to realize that the oil had reached our coast. It was obvious to us then that our livelihoods would be affected.”
To mitigate the economic impact of the oil spill, the government provides each registered fisher, such as Mr. Beeharry and his wife, MUR 5,100 (about $128) monthly. Also, they are paid a similar amount to cushion the effects of COVID-19.
“In total, my wife and I receive MUR 20,400 monthly ($513) from the Government — half of that for COVID-19 and the other half for the Wakashio oil spill impact. We are grateful for this help, but since we have three girls, it is not enough to pay all the bills.”
To make ends meet, Mr. Beeharry makes himself available for hire to work on farms. “Since I do not own a piece of land, I accept jobs from planters looking for a helping hand in their fields.”
Yet he says: “What we actually want is to get back to our normal life. This includes being able to go at sea to earn a living as fishers.
“Fishing is more than just a job. It means a lot to us. Not being able to fish has somehow disrupted my daily routine.”
He was just eight years old when he first ventured at sea. At age 14, he lost his father who was also a fisher, but that setback did not diminish his love for fishing. “I just followed in his footsteps,” he says.
Besides being a fisher, his wife has sewing skills, and these days, “Because she cannot be at sea, she makes clothes for the members of the family,” says Mr. Beeharry.
The clean-up of the oil from almost 30 km of coastline is continuing apace. “It seems that the quality of the lagoon water has improved,” says Mr. Beeharry. “People are even saying that the fish are coming back.”
He does not expect to be back at sea any time soon because fishing restrictions are unlikely to be lifted until the vessel’s wreckage is completely removed.
“We have heard of a plan to remove what is left of the ship. But we are not exactly sure when that will be,” he says.
In December 2020, Nagashiki Shipping, the Japanese firm that owns the vessel, began removing the rear part of the broken vessel. The company announced it would take months to take out everything. Local authorities had ordered the scuttling of its front.
Mr. Beeharry’s hope for the future depends on how the situations of COVID-19 and the oil spill evolve in the coming months.
“Beyond the MV Wakashio crisis, COVID-19 is still causing havoc across the world. It seems it would be better to be patient for the time being,” he says. “We have managed to send our three daughters to school. We hope that they will be educated and seize the opportunities that we never had.”