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World Plastic, chemicals and a devastating hit for fishing

18:31  09 june  2021
18:31  09 june  2021 Source:   bbc.com

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The X-Press Pearl is lying half sunken off the coast of Sri Lanka. Images of the ship burning for days have gone around the world but now the ship has mostly sunk, the hull resting on the shallow ocean bed.

The unlucky ship had towers of containers stacked upon each other, many containing chemicals highly dangerous to the environment.

Tons of tiny plastic pellets have already washed up on the local beach nearby. And then there's of course the tons of fuel oil sealed in the sunken hull.

Aside from the environmental threats, there are devastating consequences for the local communities, from fishermen who over night lost their livelihoods to the tourism sector that likely will suffer for years.

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Billions of plastic pellets

"There were some 46 different chemicals on that ship," explains Hemantha Withanage, a Sri Lankan environmental activist and founder of the Centre for Environmental Justice in the capital Colombo. "But what's been most visible so far are the tons of plastic pellets," he tells the BBC.

Plastic pellets, also called nurdles, are tiny round pieces of plastic, used to make nearly all plastic goods.

If they end up in the ocean like now off Sri Lanka, it's usually billions of them and they will wash up on beaches and end up in the guts of fish and others ocean animal.

Since late May, these pellets from the X-Press Pearl cargo have ended up on the Negombo beaches while fish have been washed up with bloated bellies and pellets stuck in their gills.

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There are countless pellets already washed up at the beaches. © BBC There are countless pellets already washed up at the beaches.

The plastic can take between 500 to 1000 years to decompose and likely to be carried by ocean currents to all shores of Sri Lanka and even to beaches hundreds of kilometres away from the shipwreck.

Yet while the plastic might be the most visible impact on the shore so far, it's not the most dangerous one.

"If these nurdles are within fish we eat, they're usually in the fish's digestive tracts," Britta Denise Hardesty of Australia's CSIRO Oceans and Atmosphere told the BBC. "But we don't eat the the entire fish unless it's maybe anchovies or sardines."

"Pellets are often sensationalised but there is no strong evidence that humans are shown to have detrimental impact from eating fish that may haven eaten plastics."

While this doesn't mean the pellets are not harmful to the marine life itself, experts say it's not the most dangerous cargo of the container ship.

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Chemical pollution

"More hazardous than the plastic are the chemicals," warns Mr Withange.

He says there already have been fish, turtles and dolphins washed up dead on the beaches. Some of those had turned a greenish colour suggesting contamination with metals and chemicals.

He explains that among the most dangerous elements on board the ship are nitric acid, sodium dioxide, copper and lead.

Highly poisonous, once in the water they will make their way into the food chain: small fish might die quickly but bigger ones won't. Instead, feeding on smaller fish, the toxins will build up in the bodies over time.

"So if in a a few years you catch a tune, you will still see it's contaminated - this bioaccumulation will be a serious problem."

a person standing next to a river: The fishing industry will be hit for years © BBC The fishing industry will be hit for years

This means fish from the area will be dangerous for humans, and not just for now, but for years to come.

"People need to be educated on this," Mr Withange urges. "It's a completely toxic ship now. All the litter coming to shore is very poisonous and people should not even touch it."

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The problem is by no means limited to the immediate area around the shipwreck on Sri Lanka's western coast.

"Wastes, toxins or plastics don't follow geographic boundaries," Britta Denise Hardesty of Australia's CSIRO Oceans and Atmosphere told the BBC.

"They will be carried by wind, waves, currents and those things change seasonally."

The clean up job

It's expected that Sri Lanka will be dealing with the environmental damage from the X-Press Pearl for decades.

The country is not well prepared though for a difficult job like this. While there have been shipwrecks before, there's never been one with such poisonous cargo.

So activists urge that international experts will be crucial.

The shipping company that owns the X-Press Pearl has already commissioned an international firm to respond to the crisis and says its specialists are already on the ground in Sri Lanka.

But Mr Withange doubts whether a profit-driven firm will really do its utmost to help the situation. The case has become a high-profile insurance case where the concern for marine wildlife might fall behind that for money.

His biggest hope is that the disaster will at least be a valuable lesson, to prevent a repeat or at least be better prepared the next time.

The Centre for Environmental Justice has sued both the Sri Lankan government and the shipping company, but the group acknowledges that the best outcome might just be that they're raising awareness.

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The impact on the locals

For the fishermen of Negombo, the long-term environmental impact is of secondary concern. Firstly, the disaster means that many of them have lost their income and livelihood practically over night.

Fishing has been banned in the area but many there depend daily on the money they would normally make from their catch.

"We are small time fishermen we go to sea daily. We can earn something only if we go to sea otherwise our entire family will starve," 31 year old Denish Rodrigo told BBC while making their fishing nets at the harbour.

"The fish are bread in the coral reefs in the area and authorities are saying that all those breading grounds are destroyed due to the dangerous chemicals on the ship. So what we will have to do not. There is no any other option than jump in to see and die," Tiuline Fernando a 58 year old fisherman for 35 years.

While the government is expecting to the receive compensation and insurance payouts from the Singapore based shipping firm, the locals don't expect that much of that will be used to help them.

The fishermen's association told the BBC that they desperately need help.

"And it's not only us, there are other related industries also impacted from this. We buy nets and engines and boats, we need oil, there are people who pull the boats there are thousands other related jobs connected to this fishing industry."

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