Sri Lankans blame cargo ship fire in May as more dead marine animals wash ashore

A dead blue whale beached in Kayts, Jaffna, in northern Sri Lanka, on June 15, 2021.
A dead blue whale beached in Kayts, Jaffna, in northern Sri Lanka, on June 15, 2021.PHOTO: THE PEARL PROTECTORS

BANGALORE - A dead blue whale has been beached in northern Sri Lanka, the latest of several bodies of marine animals washing ashore in the past few weeks - a phenomenon that locals blame on the burning of a cargo ship in May.

The blue whale was found on Kayts island, off Jaffna peninsula in the north on Tuesday (June 15), said an official from the Marine Environment Protection Agency (Mepa).

Most of the other dead marine life was washed ashore in the south-western coastal belt.

There were carcasses of five dolphins and more than 30 sea turtles, in addition to dead fish and eels.

A Singapore-flagged cargo ship, X-Press Pearl, caught fire on May 20 near the capital Colombo, sparking concerns of devastating impact on marine wildlife in the region.

Oil, chemicals and plastic pellets have spilled off the ship's deck into the sea.

The ocean is home to several species of large marine mammals such as the non-migratory blue, humpback and pilot whales; spinner, spotted and bottlenose dolphins; and thresher and whitetip sharks.

The Department of Wildlife Conservation is conducting necropsies on the tissues from the dead animals.

So far, none of the reported deaths have been attributed to the ship accident.

Mepa has yet to fully assess additional costs to wildlife and the marine environment.

Sri Lankans have shared distressing photos of the dead marine life on social media, demanding a fast probe into the cause of death.

Many blame the ship accident for putting an already stressed marine ecosystem in further danger.

Posting the photos of dead dolphins on the Report a Dead Marine Animal in Sri Lanka Facebook page, fisheries officer Iromi Mendis wrote: "Poor animals pay compensation for human mistakes."

Another netizen Ravindu Thatsara asked: "Why are there no test results yet?"

The Sri Lankan navy is cleaning up tonnes of plastic pellets that now coat many beaches in the south-western coast, such as in Kalpitiya.

The white fish egg-like pellets, often called "toxic snow", are stubborn pollutants that choke small marine wildlife and block the digestive tracts of fish that swallow them, thus starving them.

While many locals blame the ship fire for the dead marine life, experts say the impact on big marine animals remains to be seen.

Dr Asha de Vos, marine biologist and founder of Oceanswell, Sri Lanka's first marine conservation research organisation, said that marine animals die throughout the year and get washed ashore, and that not all deaths can be attributed to the ship.

"Pellets choke small fish, but researchers around the world who study micro plastics have found no evidence of big animals dying of ingesting plastic pellets," added Dr de Vos, who studies blue whales in the Indian Ocean.

Conservation biologist Ranil Nanayakkara said the deaths might just be more visible now due to the acute attention that the authorities are paying to the ocean since the ship fire.

But he did not rule out pollutants travelling far from the ship.

"Chemicals and plastic pellets that have spilled out of the ship can travel with water columns, monsoon winds and currents not just to Sri Lanka's northern coast but also to India further north of us," Dr Nanayakkara said.

If the pellets travel up the coast, they could wreck the pristine seagrass beds in the Palk Strait between India and Sri Lanka, the critical habitat of a small population of dugongs, and also sharks, rays, sea horses and shrimps.

"Whales are very large, so we are yet to see if they are affected by the pollution. But it is worrying because these mammals are a great, crucial carbon sink in our seas," added Dr Nanayakkara.

Sri Lanka is seeking an interim claim of US$40 million (S$53.5 million) from the ship's operator, X-Press Feeders.

The amount is compensation for firefighting expenses from May 20 to June 1.

Fishing has been banned in the area since the incident, and the fisheries ministry has offered compensation to fishermen who have suffered a loss of income.