Oil spills and coastal resilience
Two Stanford scientists found hope and lessons for improving disaster response after oil spills hit close to home.
By the time Josheena Naggea, PhD ’22, arrived at Pointe d’Esny lagoon, on the southeastern coast of Mauritius, it was as if a dark curtain had been pulled across the normally turquoise waters. Panic gripped a gathering crowd as divers came ashore slicked in black oil.
It was a sunny Thursday afternoon in early August 2020, and Naggea, who is now an André Hoffmann Ocean Innovation Fellow at the Stanford Center for Ocean Solutions and World Economic Forum, was watching the first major oil spill in her country’s history unfold.
The bulk carrier MV Wakashio had been leaking oil for hours from its perch atop a coastal reef, where it had run aground 12 days earlier. The vessel would eventually pour 318,000 gallons into sensitive habitats like mangroves, seagrass beds, and coral reefs around Mauritius, an island nation 500 miles off Madagascar in the Western Indian Ocean.
Naggea, whose research focuses on centering equity in ocean innovations for small-scale fisheries and aquaculture, posted to Facebook later that week: “It’s crippling to see our beautiful southeast coast being annihilated overnight. It’s the place that first introduced me to the natural and cultural values associated with the sea and pushed me to share it with so many others.”
Naggea was intimately familiar with this portion of the coastline, not only from her childhood, but also from her research. At the time of the spill, she was a doctoral student in Stanford’s Emmett Interdisciplinary Program in Environment and Resources (E-IPER). Her dissertation focused on ocean governance in Mauritius, particularly the management of small-scale fisheries and marine protected areas.
Once the Wakashio started leaking, Naggea couldn’t shake the image of the lagoon that first day or the impacts she had observed on livelihoods and health throughout the region. “I watched as residents without any protective equipment used buckets to scoop oil from the water in front of their homes,” Naggea recalled. “For me, that shows the attachment people have to the sea and the desperation they felt to protect the place they love and rely on.”
She often found a supportive ear in E-IPER classmate Rebecca Miller, PhD ’21. Miller was half a world away working on her dissertation. But she was similarly focused on how communities recover from environmental disasters – not oil spills, in her case, but wildfires.
Naggea knew she wanted to find a way to help the coastline and communities of her childhood, so she extended her stay in Mauritius for several months. Through conversations over Zoom with Miller and her PhD advisors, Professor of Oceans Larry Crowder and Associate Professor of Oceans Krish Seetah, Naggea realized she could apply her expertise in social ecology to support governmental and nongovernmental organizations, as well as community leaders, in learning from the impacts of the Wakashio incident to prepare for future oil spills.
Those conversations echoed in Miller’s mind months later, when an oil spill struck her own hometown, Huntington Beach, along the coast of California. On Oct. 1, 2021, an underwater pipeline tore open nearly 5 miles offshore, emptying 25,000 gallons of oil into coastal waters.
Unlike Mauritius, Huntington Beach, which owes its origins to California’s oil industry, was no stranger to spills. As Naggea and Miller explain in a Feb. 15 research paper in Ecology and Society about the Wakashio and Huntington Beach spills, California developed a contingency plan in 1990 – the same year that oil spilled from the tanker American Trader threatened the Huntington Beach coastline.
Huntington Beach also had access to state clean-up resources and participated in spill drills as mandated by policies resulting from other spills in U.S. waters, like the Exxon Valdez in Alaska and Deepwater Horizon in the Gulf of Mexico. Despite the extensive preparation in Huntington Beach, Miller never imagined an environmental crisis hitting so close to home.
Through her research, Miller had often talked with California residents displaced by wildfires about response and recovery. “People would say ‘You never think it’s gonna happen to you, your house, your community.’ I heard them, but until a disaster happened in my town, it didn’t fully hit me,” said Miller, who is now a AAAS Science and Technology Policy Fellow at the U.S. Department of State.
Having just begun a postdoctoral position at the University of Southern California at the time, Miller drove the 40 miles south to Huntington Beach on the second day of the spill. “As I was driving down, I remember thinking: I don’t know what it will be like on day three or four, but it felt like this was a smaller piece of a much bigger story to tell.”
She found the beach closed to visitors as part of a well-rehearsed protocol for protecting public safety. Observing the eerily vacant shoreline, Miller recalled feeling helpless to fix the immediate situation. “But I also knew that if Josheena and I teamed up, we could compare the same type of disaster in markedly different contexts, allowing us to leverage our perspectives as both residents and researchers to tease out more nuanced challenges and successes for each community.”
Research close to home
The pair set out to understand how Mauritius and Huntington Beach differed in their emergency response, and the policy and environmental justice implications of these observed differences. Naggea began combing through government press releases, United Nations reports, and NGO social media feeds, painstakingly piecing together how government, nongovernmental organizations, and residents responded during the first 10 days after the Pointe d’Esny spill.
Naggea’s knowledge of political and community contexts, coupled with her academic expertise, allowed her to bring a local perspective to what is often an exercise conducted by researchers from outside the country.
History has shown that the first few days after an oil spill are the most important for mitigating long-term impacts to local ecosystems and communities. Yet few studies have examined how the emergency response unfolds in this initial period, in part because it’s often difficult for researchers to access disaster zones quickly.
“By choosing two cases so close to our hearts but so opposite in terms of magnitude and response, we could better highlight the contrast in responses in the short period of days after the incidents, and the implications of these differences,” said Miller.
Miller also monitored publicly available information – government documents, local media coverage, official press conferences and releases, and social media – to complement her visits to Huntington Beach. New developments flooded in each day, sometimes by the hour.
“It was all anyone in Huntington Beach was talking about,” said Miller. “My mom walks her dog at a local park every morning, and all her friends who walk their dogs at the same time were discussing the latest updates from the spill every day."
A study in contrasts
As Naggea and Miller detail in their new paper, Huntington Beach followed an organized emergency response based on preexisting plans. The region’s Unified Command team ordered the public to avoid contaminated areas, coordinated across federal, state, and local agencies, and supplied trained volunteers with protective equipment to support official clean-up efforts.
Mauritius last rehearsed for an oil spill in 2012, but the magnitude of the Wakashio disaster outstripped local resources and capacity. When the vessel initially ran aground, its hull remained intact. Yet the government requested aid only after fuel began spilling into the sea 12 days later.
By the time international experts arrived on scene, set back by pandemic-related travel delays, thousands of local residents had already begun to improvise. Barbers offered free haircuts: The sheared locks, when wrapped in fabric and buoyed by plastic bottles, served as makeshift booms. Without fish to catch or tourists to engage, local boat owners towed booms around the oily slicks instead. When cleaning companies officially took over response efforts, local volunteers had already been exposed to health hazards associated with oil and were citing difficulties breathing, eye irritation, dizziness, and nausea.
Three weeks after the Wakashio spill, tens of thousands of Mauritians marched in the nation’s capital, protesting the government’s delayed reaction and calling for swifter management of future environmental disasters. It was the largest protest in the country’s history, building what Naggea calls an “ecological consciousness” reaching far beyond direct impacts from the spill.
The march highlighted a web of environmental and social justice challenges for small island states, which face increasing hazards from climate change driven by burning of fossil fuels, while also contending with outsized impacts when those fuels spill. Unlike Huntington Beach, Mauritius receives no oil-related benefits yet must contend with a high risk of future spills, as nearly one-third of the world’s crude oil supply ships through Mauritian waters. When disaster does strike, compensation for damages may arrive only months to years later, if ever.
Toward empathy and coastal resilience
According to Miller and Naggea, it’s unrealistic to expect the governments of small island nations to maintain local oil spill expertise, but regional networks could work together to provide resources and assistance to nearby countries. Other factors that could increase resilience to future spills include routine drills and more extensive stakeholder involvement in preparing disaster plans.
Today, Mauritius is working with the United Nations Development Programme to update its contingency plan with lessons from the Wakashio spill. Naggea and Miller hope their research findings will inform the process. The government has also proposed new shipping regulations to protect the island.
“This experience has deepened my sense of unexpected loss and the ripple effects a disaster can have on a community,” said Miller, adding that she now brings renewed empathy to her continued work with people affected by wildfires.
When Naggea last visited the lagoon in February 2023, she noted it had returned to its characteristic turquoise hue. But the bright waters also fill her with dread. “I worry about the long-term health impacts of this disaster on local residents, especially those who went back to consuming seafood within weeks of the spill,” she said. “It’s a reminder that we need to invest in better preparation and share lessons with other vulnerable nations so they, unlike Mauritius, don’t have to learn from firsthand experience.”
This research was supported by the Emmett Interdisciplinary Program in Environment and Resources, the Stanford Haas Center for Public Service Graduate Summer Fellowship for Community-Engaged Research, the Huntington-USC Institute on California and the West, and the Stanford Center for Ocean Solutions.
Naggea is an André Hoffmann Ocean Innovation Fellow at the Stanford Center for Ocean Solutions and the World Economic Forum Center for the Fourth Industrial Revolution. She is also an Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services Fellow on the Transformative Change Assessment.
Miller is a AAAS Science and Technology Policy Fellow at the U.S. Department of State and an affiliated scholar at the Bill Lane Center for the American West at the Stanford School of Humanities and Sciences and the Huntington-USC Institute on California and the West.
Image behind first quote courtesy of Rebecca Miller. Image behind second quote courtesy of Josheena Naggea.