Shipwrecked by Design: The Environmental Disaster Behind Mauritania’s Ship Graveyard

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GPS Coordinates: 20.771026, -17.044758

Walk certain beaches of the Ras Nouadhibou peninsula in northwestern Africa and you’ll come across a curious sight — the wrecked remains of hundreds of ships. Tankers, reefers, yachts, cargo ships, fishing boats… They’re all there, baking under the hot Saharan sun and rusting in the blue waters of the Atlantic Ocean. Although an odd spectacle, there’s nothing beautiful or mysterious about this ship graveyard located on the coast of Mauritania, especially when its impact on the local environment is considered.

Because the sheltered east side of the Ras Nouadhibou peninsula is ideal for harboring ships, the area became an important port-of-call for vessels traveling across the Atlantic or along the African coastline. When iron ore became a major Mauritanian commodity, the harbor helped give rise to the nation’s largest city, Nouadhibou. Today, Nouadhibou is home to nearly 100,000 people and the ship graveyard is one of its major industries.

The Graveyard Greed Built

The graveyard had its origins in the 1980s, when many Maurintanians were hoping to break into the shipping industry by buying up older vessels from other countries. When the local economy collapsed however, the ships were abandoned offshore. Government officials quickly realized that they could make a lot of money by allowing other nations to dump antiquated vessels in the harbor. In some cases, parts of these ships were salvaged for electronics and other equipment, but most of the massive superstructures were left intact. After three decades of this practice, more than 300 ships now choke the harbor and line the beaches.

A Poisoned Future

Some have argued that the ship graveyard has benefited local wildlife by providing artificial reefs for the nation’s highly depleted fish stocks as well as nesting areas for sea birds; but the obvious environmental disaster of having so many rotting ships in one area cannot be understated.

While developed nations can undertake appropriate ship recycling, in most cases safely salvaging and reusing up to 99% of a vessel’s components, poor nations like Mauritania lack the necessary resources. As a result, dangerous substances including asbestos, lead-based paints and oil can easily leak into the environment, poisoning wildlife and endangering human health. In the case of Mauritania’s ship graveyard, the biggest concern is with extremely toxic compounds known as polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs). A known carcinogenic agent, PCBs are found in staggeringly high quantities all along the west coast of Africa and have been directly linked to the ship graveyard. Although these agents are now banned, they exist in older ships like those in the Nouadhibou harbor.

The problem became so serious that Mauritania started working with the European Union and private salvage companies in the mid-2000s to remove or destroy the wrecks. It’s still too early to tell what kind of benefits this salvage operation will have on the environment and it’s likely that wildlife and the Mauritanians will suffer the consequences of the graveyard for decades to come.

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