Fishermen feeling the impact of Sri Lanka ship disaster

Sri Lankan man fishes on a polluted beach filled with plastic pellets

Sri Lanka’s fishermen are already feeling the impact of an unfolding environmental disaster caused by the slow sinking of a fire-ravaged cargo ship that had been loaded with chemicals.

Fishing remained banned Friday along about 80 kilometers (50 miles) of coastline, as debris from the Singapore-flagged MV X-Press Pearl — including tons of plastic pellets and burned fiberglass – continued to wash ashore.

Authorities were also on guard for the possible leak of oil and chemicals from the ship, which started sinking off the country’s main port on Wednesday, a day after a fire that raged on the vessel for 12 days was extinguished.

A lone fisherman, Kinson Jayalath, was defying the ban Friday on Kepumgoda beach. He said he was trying to catch food for his family but was growing frustrated by the lack of fish in an area where he said there had been plenty just a week ago.

In a nearby village home to many people who depend on the fishing industry, Ajith Nelson said even before the restrictions were announced fishermen were having their nets ruined by huge chunks of cottonlike material that became entangled in them.

While fishing is still allowed in deeper waters, sales of seafood have plummeted because consumers fear chemical contamination, said Herman Kumara of the National Fisheries Solidarity Movement.

As the the ship started to sink, crews tried to tow it into deeper waters away from the port but failed after the ship’s stern became submerged and rested on the seabed 21 meters (70 feet) below the surface. The ship was continuing to take on water Friday.

Shumel Yoskovitz, the chief executive of the ship’s operators X-Press Feeders, apologized for disaster Friday in an interview with Channel News Asia.

“I’d like to express my deep regret and apology to the Sri Lankan people for the harm this incident has caused both to the livelihood and environment of Sri Lanka,” Yoskovitz said.

The fire erupted on May 20 when the ship was anchored about 9.5 nautical miles (18 kilometers) northwest of Colombo and waiting to enter the port.

X-Press Feeders have said the fire destroyed most of the ship’s cargo, which included 25 tons of nitric acid and other chemicals. It has said salvage experts were remaining with the vessel to monitor its condition and any pollution.

Colombo port Harbor Master Nirmal Silva said tons of oil in the ship’s fuel tanks may also have burned out with the fire, but authorities were prepared to to deal with an oil spill.

Both the navy and coast guard have been preparing for a spill with assistance from neighboring India. India has sent three ships to help, including one specifically equipped to deal with marine pollution.

Sri Lankan police are probing the fire, and a court in Colombo on Tuesday banned the captain, the engineer and the assistant engineer from leaving the country. The government has said it will take legal action against the owners of the ship to claim compensation.

Kumara’s fishing group along with other activist groups on Friday petitioned the Supreme Court to call on authorities to assess the long-term damage to the environment and marine life, possible hazardousness of eating fish and the health impacts. The petition called on the owners of the ship, their local agent and the state to pay compensation to those affected.

The petitioners told court that they obtained the list of the goods carried onboard the ship through a right to information law and the cargo included nitric acid, caustic soda, sodium methylate, plastic, lubricant oil, quick lime, sodium methodoxide, high density polyethylene, low density polyethylene, methanol, bright yellow sulphur, urea, and cosmetics.

Silva said that the ship captain had not concealed any information on the goods onboard nor was there was any breach of rules.

(Source: AP – By Eranga Jayawardena)