Focus/Spotlight

Aftermath of X-Press Pearl disaster: Marine and livelihood losses increase 

By Yumiko Perera 

 

The MV X-Press Pearl disaster and the ecological impact it has had on the country and its marine ecosystem have taken centre stage over the past few weeks. 

The fisheries and tourism sectors have taken a significant hit in the wake of what is likely the biggest maritime disaster the country has ever witnessed, and the fishing communities are already facing devastating consequences owing to the incident. 

A lot is being said on the matter, whilst fisherfolk are still awaiting compensation for the damages they have had to incur. 

Speaking with The Sunday Morning earlier this week, State Minister of Ornamental Fish, Inland Fish, and Prawn Farming, Fishery Harbour Development, Multi-day Fishing Activities, and Fish Exports Kanchana Wijesekera said that authorities are in the process of assessing the number of people that have been affected. 

Whilst a multitude of sub-sectors that are associated with the fisheries sector have also been equally affected, according to State Minister Wijesekera, a form would be handed out to those who are engaged in these sectors and were affected by the disaster, in order to determine their eligibility for compensation. 

It is estimated that the fisheries sector and its sub-sectors employ approximately 250,000 active fisherfolk and nearly 100,000 more in support services across the island. 

Speaking with The Sunday Morning, Marine Environment Protection Authority (MEPA) Chairperson Attorney-at-Law Darshani Lahandapura said: “An expert panel has been appointed comprising of 28 individuals from various fields such as environmental economics, fisheries, biodiversity, etc., to determine the compensation that would be sought, and when the compensation is being calculated, all these areas – the livelihood of the community, tourism, the damage done to the biodiversity and flora and fauna – would be also be taken into account.” 

According to Lahandapura, if the wreck is to be towed away, it would have to be done under the purview of the Merchant Shipping Secretariat. 

While marine experts from the Merchant Shipping Secretariat with the assistance of the Sri Lanka Navy had managed to recover the Voyage Data Recorder (VDR) of the X-Press Pearl earlier this month, the findings and the data are still unknown. 

“The CID (Criminal Investigation Department) will decode and do the needful. However, I haven’t received any information on what has been decoded so far,”  Lahandapura said in conclusion. 

Several attempts made by The Sunday Morning to get in touch with Merchant Shipping Secretariat Director General Ajith Seneviratne for more insight on what would happen to the wreck, were unsuccessful, as he was unavailable for immediate comment. 

 

Oil slick being investigated 

Apart from the ecological damage the plastic pellets have already caused, the half-sunken vessel still has hundreds of tonnes of bunker oil on board – an impending disaster that would prove to be devastating on the marine ecosystem of the island. 

While it is still unclear whether an oil spill has indeed occurred, according to National Aquatic Resources Agency (NARA) Chief Scientist K. Arunanandan, an oil patch covering an area of 3.5 m around the doomed vessel had been visible by 4 June and had gradually diluted to 0.35 m since then. 

Speaking with The Sunday Morning, renowned environmentalist and environmental activist Nayanaka Ranwella, who had fought long and hard for environmental justice in the country, said: “The way the authorities have handled the situation from the moment the vessel arrived in Sri Lankan waters up to now is unfortunate, and it’s quite evident that there are multiple shortcomings in how things are being handled now. 

There is a visible oil slick surrounding the vessel even as of now however, it is unclear whether it had been caused by the bunker oil, or if it could be oil from the generators of the ship. 

As far as I am aware, the authorities have oil booms that could prevent the oil spreading further, had the authorities taken prompt action, they could have even been able to contain the spread of plastic pellets initially. 

Multiple carcasses of animals are also being washed ashore, and it’s still unclear whether the deaths of these marine animals could be attributed to the chemicals that had been on board the ship, however, it is highly unlikely it could be just a coincidence. The impact this disaster has already caused to the ecological balance of the waters in the country is incalculable.” 

According to Ranwella, apart from the imminent threat of a possible oil spill, the wreck further poses a potential threat to other vessels. 

“The wreck is presently situated in a biodiversity hotspot, so it needs to be moved to the deeper sea sooner or later. 

However, for now, I think the best thing the authorities could do as of now is to opt to contain the oil slick in order to minimise the damage it could potentially cause.” 

Stating that there is still a lack of clarity in what is being said, Ranwella went on to state, “The compensation for the MT New Diamond disaster also hadn’t been sufficient to cover the damages that the country had to incur, and I hope there is more clarity when it comes to the findings.” 

Furthermore, Ranwella also stated that more technical knowledge is required in order to prevent events such as this from repeating, and damage control is the need of the hour. 

“What is even the point of building port cities and boasting about the booming economy if we don’t have the sufficient infrastructure to put out a single fire?” Ranwella added in conclusion. 

However, investigations are underway to determine the cause of the visible oil slick, and according to Arunanandan, NARA has obtained samples from the area and tests are being conducted to determine whether the oil is from the fuel of the wreck or an oil slick that had appeared after the fire. 

The ship caught on fire on 20 May outside the Colombo Harbour and an explosion aboard the ship prior to the fire being extinguished had caused several containers to fall overboard. 

Debris, including plastic pellets, has since washed up ashore, polluting pristine coastlines that have long been the selling point of the tourism industry of the island.  

While a part of the vessel has since sunk, the vessel’s top brass have been prohibited from leaving the country, and the lack of clarity as to how things would proceed henceforth has brought up several questions in the minds of the people. 

The Colombo Magistrate’s Court last Monday, 7 June, dismissed an appeal by the CID to issue notices to seven individuals including the local agent of the operator of the X-Press Pearl to appear in court, after having named them as suspects. 

Speaking with The Sunday Morning, Sarath Jayamanna PC, who appeared on behalf of the Captain and the local agent, said: “The case should be carried out by the High Court, as the Magistrate’s Court has no jurisdiction in this regard.” 

While Jayamanne refused to comment on the emails that had allegedly been deleted, as the case is still ongoing, the additional magistrate had called for the originals of the emails exchanged between the vessel’s Captain and the local agent to be handed over to the CID. 

Attempts made by The Sunday Morning to contact Minister of Ports and Shipping Rohitha Abeygunawardena, for more insight on the present situation, proved futile. 

 


Can marine animal deaths be attributed to the MV X-Press Pearl disaster? 

 

Environmentalists claim that there has been a significant increase in the number of marine animal carcasses washing up ashore and that it may be linked to the disaster. 

It still isn’t clear as to what may have caused it, or if it could simply be a natural phenomenon that has coincided with the situation at present.   

National Aquatic Resources Research and Development Agency (NARA) Chairman Prof. A. Navaratnerajah, speaking with The Sunday Morning, shared: “Every once in a while, there are incidents of stranding of whales and dolphins being reported, and that has happened over the past few years too. Although we are not yet in a position to prove that the recent reports of carcasses of animals being washed ashore may have a connection to the X-Press Pearl disaster, most of the carcasses had been putrefied.” 

Prof. Navaratnerajah went on to say that investigations are underway to determine how the marine animals had died.  

While several sea turtle carcasses had washed up ashore over the past week, raising serious concerns about the contamination caused to the seas of the island, the authorities seem to be maintaining that it’s still “too soon to tell”. 

 


Plight of fishermen on the west coast 

 

According to All-Ceylon Fisherfolk Trade Union Secretary Dinesh Fernando, the fishing communities still haven’t been compensated for the damages that they have had to bear, both because of the X-Press Pearl disaster, and the adverse weather conditions recently.  

“We still haven’t received any sort of compensation so far, not even the Rs. 5,000 that was said to be given to the fishing communities,” Fernando lamented.  

Fernando also went on to say that things have gone from bad to worse, as there is a significant reduction in demand for seafood since the disaster.  

According to National Aquatic Resources Research and Development Agency (NARA) Chairman Prof. A. Navaratnerajah, the public shouldn’t have any doubts about consuming fish, as the vicinity of the waters where the incident had occurred had been declared a no-fishing zone.  

“We mainly get fish from other areas, so people should not have doubts about consuming fish.” 

Fishing activities in the Negombo lagoon that had been specified as a no-fishing zone has been allowed to recommence as of Saturday (12), according to State Minister Kanchana Wijesekera, The Sunday Morning learnt. 

Furthermore, Minister of Fisheries, Douglas Devandanda, speaking with The Sunday Morning stated that the public shouldn’t be sceptical towards consuming fish as the fish that arrives in the markets are from other parts of the island. 

“It’s the mindset of the people that seems to be the problem,” he noted. 

 

PHOTO © SRI LANKA AIR FORCE