Marine disaster as plastic waves from burning ship wash ashore in Sri Lanka
Thousands of naval ratings gathered tonnes of microscopic plastic granules from the Singapore-registered MV X-Press Pearl that has been smoking on the horizon for ten days on the beaches with automated diggers.
Microplastic pollution, according to Sri Lanka's Marine Protection Authority (MEPA), could bring years of ecological damage to the Indian Ocean island.
"This is probably the worst beach pollution in our history," MEPA chairman Dharshani Lahandapura said.
The small polyethylene pellets endanger tourism beaches and shallow-water fish spawning.
Despite a multinational firefighting operation, fishing has been prohibited along an 80-kilometer (50-mile) stretch of the shore near the ship that has been blazing for ten days.
DESCRIBED AS AN UNPRECEDENTED MARINE ENVIRONMENTAL DISASTER BY ENVIRONMENT ACTIVIST GROUPS, AS MICROPLASTIC IN WAVES REACH SRI LANKA COASTS FROM A FALLEN SHIP (IMAGE COURTESY OF THE PEARL PROTECTORS VIA TWITTER)
"There is smoke and intermittent flames seen from the ship," navy spokesman Captain Indika de Silva told AFP.
If oil leaks from the disabled ship reach the Negombo lagoon, which is known for its crabs and big prawns, orange-colored plastic booms were erected.
Because of the fishing restriction, tens of thousands of tiny boats were stranded near Negombo on Saturday.
'There is no end in sight'
Rating in the Navy Manjula Dulanjala claimed his staff cleared the beach almost completely on Friday evening but were surprised to see it covered again the next morning.
"This is like the coronavirus. No end in sight. We removed all the plastic yesterday, only to see more of it dumped by the waves overnight," he said.
Trucks picked up the pellets and garbage, which were packaged into green and white polythene sacks.
Microplastics and burned debris were 60 centimeters (two feet) deep in certain areas of the beach, according to an officer leading another crew.
Peter Fernando, a 68-year-old local fisherman, said he had never seen anything like it.
The Asian tsunami of December 2004 wreaked havoc on much of the island's coastline, killing an estimated 31,000 people but only causing damage to coastal infrastructure.
Sujeewa Athukorale, a Roman Catholic priest, claimed the majority of his parishioners were fishermen who were on the verge of going hungry.
"Their immediate need is to be allowed to go back to the sea," he said.
"There are 4,500 fishing families in my parish alone."
Mangroves are in danger.
People were concerned that the plastic debris would ruin mangroves and reefs, where fish reproduce in shallow water, according to fisherman Lakshan Fernando, 30.
"No one is able to say how long we will have the adverse effects of this pollution," Fernando told AFP.
"It could take a few years or a few decades, but in the meantime what about our livelihoods?"
The likelihood of damage would be increased if the vessel, which was carrying 278 tonnes of bunker oil and 50 tonnes of gasoil, leaked oil.
The fire looked to have burned much of the ship's cargo, including 25 tonnes of nitric acid, sodium hydroxide, lubricants, and other chemicals, according to officials.
As it waited to enter Colombo harbor, the X-Press Pearl caught fire and is now anchored just outside the port.
The Dutch company SMIT, which has supplied specialized fire-fighting tugs, is leading an international salvage operation. India has dispatched coastguard ships to assist the Sri Lankan navy.
Last September, SMIT assisted in the dousing of a flaming oil tanker off Sri Lanka's east coast after an engine room explosion killed a crew member.
The fire on the New Diamond burned for more than a week and resulted in a 40-kilometer (25-mile) oil spill. For the clean-up, Sri Lanka has requested $17 million from the owners.
COVER IMAGE COURTESY OF SHARJAH 24 VIA TWITTER