The impact of MV X-Press Pearl on marine life: Will nature be restored?

It has been about a month since the MV X-Press Pearl ship caused havoc to the beautiful oceans that Sri Lanka boasts of. The ship, after being doused of its fires, sank at the beginning of this month, meaning all its containers sank into the ocean with it.

The ship was carrying 1,486 containers, among which were nitric acid, sodium hydroxide, and sodium methoxide, alongside other hazardous chemicals and material. The full list of chemicals was not revealed to the public (including interest groups and organisations) until almost a week had lapsed. The full list of declared goods (the cargo manifest) was shared on social media on around 3 June, but with no official government source.

After numerous failures as well as bad and delayed decisions, the ship is now a wreck on the shallow ocean floor in the outer Harbour of Colombo. Most of the cargo is burnt, but no one knows exactly how many chemical containers remain intact; nobody knows how many of the containers that fell into the sea while the ship was burning are now stacked on the ocean bed.


Environmental apocalypse

Conservationist Jayantha Wijesinghe observed that with such a large amount of nitric acid, caustic soda, sodium methoxide, and other chemicals in the relatively shallow water around the now sunken ship, with several natural reefs in the vicinity, the dramatic change in the PH level of the water, even for an instant in time, will have affected highly sensitive marine flora and fauna. Reports abound of visible marine life death (turtles, fish, crabs, and many other reef-based marine fauna and flora).

Although small, burned carcasses have washed up to shore, the impact on large mammals such as whales and dolphins is yet to be seen or proven to be caused by this disaster. Some animals may have managed to abandon the area for the time being, which will lead to the downfall of tourism in such areas once the lockdown is lifted. Wijesinghe also noted that mostly unseen is the damage under the ocean: Damage from plastic raw materials and chemicals, burnt containers and parts, and oil from barrels and fuel tanks could last decades, if not centuries.

Now, since the ship has already sunk, Wijesinghe added that the newest danger is from hundreds of tonnes of oil spilling into the surrounding ocean. An Air Force image showed a yellow patch in the water surrounding the ship, which is clearly a sign of an engine oil leak. Wijesinghe questioned: “Are we ready to handle a potential fuel leak and a crude oil leak as well? The answer is a simple no! The supposedly available oil booms are a haphazard collection of small parts from various entities and are not the best to handle a 300 metric tonne oil leak in turbulent water, especially in the current weather.”

He informed us that all material reaching beaches, including the adjacent sea water, need to be continuously monitored for very probable contamination. “People must be stopped from touching such material. Moreover, attention must be drawn to ensure a minimum impact on the Negombo Lagoon, although preventing it completely may not be feasible,” he concluded.


The lack of conclusion

An officer at the veteran wildlife rehabilitation centre in Attidiya, Dr. Suhada Jayawardena informed us that there is to be a press conference by the State Veterinary Surgeons’ Association on this issue where they release the facts and figures on the animal carcasses and what exactly is causing them. He declined to comment on whether the many deaths that washed ashore were caused by the ship, or other external factors. “These are all court proceedings, so we are not allowed to give out information, but what we can say is that this Wednesday (23), we will be announcing sufficient information that the public should know.”

From the results they have gathered so far, they were able to come to a conclusion, and he also informed us that he and his colleagues are directly involved in the postmortems of the dead carcasses that have washed up on shores. However, as per instructions, they are not allowed to reveal any extra information until it is made available to the public. “For further analysis, laboratory testing is required,” he stated.


Information hidden from public eye

In conversation with former Customs Deputy Director and Biodiversity Protection Unit Founder/Head Samantha Gunasekara, he explained that the Government is undoubtedly hiding facts from us. “Just today I saw that the Government has been ordered to keep information from the public, including organisations like NARA (National Aquatic Resources Research and Development Agency) and MEPA (Marine Environment Protection Authority).”

He stated that this issue should have proper laboratory testing, but Sri Lanka does not have the equipment or laboratory facilities to perform such tests on the animals. “Just today, a minister announced that we have to send the samples from the animal carcasses to Singapore for appropriate testing, but I have been saying this since day one. We still lack the necessary equipment to perform such an inspection. The chemicals and such in the animals are unable to be identified by the laboratories in Sri Lanka, so we need to send them aboard.”

Gunasekara also highlighted the importance of transparency about this issue, adding that as of now, however, there has been no transparency at all, which may, in the long run, be effective to humans. This brings up the question whether fish is safe to eat. “These deaths are unusual; we can’t point towards the ship, but it is definitely not normal, which is why we need answers to what is happening. We can’t reach any conclusion since no facts have been officially reported.”