Sri Lanka Confronts Environmental Consequences of Cargo Ship Disaster

One month after the X-Press Pearl cargo vessel caught fire and sank, reports of its ecological impact paint a worrisome picture.

Cargo ship at sea with brownish fumes coming from a container amidships
X-Press Pearl.

Isuruhetti / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 4.0

While the words “ecological disaster” and “poor timing” are a redundant pairing, the particular tragedy unfolding off the western coast of Sri Lanka could not have happened at a worse time for the region’s sea turtle species. 

“So far, around 176 dead turtles have got washed onto different beaches around Sri Lanka,” Thushan Kapurusinghe, coordinator of the Turtle Conservation Project of Sri Lanka (TCP), told Mongabay.

That number, abnormally high even during the present monsoon season, follows reports of dolphin and whale carcasses also washing up dead along Sri Lanka’s beaches.  

“During the south-western monsoon season, sea creatures never die in this way,” said Environment Minister Mahinda Amaraweera, reports Reuters. “Most of these carcasses are found on the west coast directly affected by the shipwreck.”

Chemicals and currents

On May 20, the freight vessel MV X-Press Pearl caught fire off the west coast of Sri Lanka. Onboard were 1,486 containers, including 25 tonnes of nitric acid and 350 tons of fuel oil. During an effort on June 2 by salvage crews to tow the vessel away from the coast and into deeper waters, it sank and began spilling some of its contents into the sea. So far, some 78 metric tons of plastic pellets called nurdles have washed ashore Sri Lanka’s beaches. 

"It was just a beach covered in these white pellets," marine biologist Asha de Vos All told NPR’s All Things Considered. "This was after the Navy personnel had been cleaning for days on end. Every time they filled bags and took them inland amongst all these other thousands of bags, another wave would wash in with more pellets. So it just seemed so unending. To me, it was really sad to see."

While the ship’s fuel oil has so far managed to remain contained to the wreck, a slick of some kind––possibly even an algae bloom caused by the fertilizers onboard––was seen in the aftermath of its sinking. It’s believed/hoped that a majority of its chemicals were burned during the 12-day fire that engulfed the vessel. 

The dangerous cargo, coupled with sea currents and a rise in marine mortality rates, has individuals like Lalith Ekanayake, chairman of the Bio Conservation Society, concerned. 

“The timing of the accident couldn’t have been worse than this as the number of turtles in our waters would be high during this time as April-May records the highest number of nesting occurrences, going by past research,” he added to Mongabay.

Sri Lanka’s fisheries industry has also been devastated, with one fisherman telling CNN that the situation “feels hopeless.” In the wake of the sinking, the Sri Lanka government issued a fishing ban along 50-miles of coastline. 

“Ever since the ship caught fire, we can’t sell our fish. We don’t have an income and it is very hard to continue to live this way,” SM Wasantha, who works in a fish market near Sri Lanka’s capital city Colombo, told EFE last month

Looking ahead, officials expect the microplastic pollution to begin impacting coastlines as far away as Indonesia and the Maldives sometime in the next few weeks. It’s believed the impact on marine life could last “for generations.”

“What will happen in time is that with the wind and wave action and UV radiation, these will start to break into smaller and smaller particles and they'll still be there, but they'll just be less visible,” De Vos added to NPR. “That's when it starts to become really difficult to clean them up.”