The Shipping News: Sri Lanka

The staggering array of creatures unloaded from deep sea vessels in darkness and sold before dawn in the Negombo fish markets is a vibrant testament to the fertile waters of the Laccadive Sea and the Indian ocean beyond. Over the last 10 months of living on Sri Lanka's south west coast, trips to its famous fish market have been one of the highlights of my food gathering excursions. Footage: Negombo Fish market, May 21, 2021. A month-long lockdown was just announced. Rice and fish curry (it's never 'fish curry and rice') is Sri Lanka’s ‘meat-and-three-veg’, although vastly more interesting. Regional variations make it reason alone to travel the island – a fiery Jaffna curry and an aromatic Colombo curry are literally an island apart - and that’s just the fish (we’ll talk about the island's 400 strains of rice another time). Seafood makes its way into everything from puff-pastried ‘short eats’ to the salty tang of a pineapple curry, and unidentifiable parts are battered and deep friend into spicy beer snacks. Not sure what these are? Answer: at the end of this article. The livelihoods of more than a million workers throughout the island depend on fishing. Nowhere is the industry more vital to a community than here in Negombo, the hub of Sri Lanka’s premium deep sea, coastal fishing and lagoon crab industry, which together make up 2% of the economy. Negombo Fish Market: 21 May , 2021 But set alight 86 containers filled with 25 metric tonnes of nitric acid, 78 tonnes of plastic 'nurdle' pellets - the 'starter material' for all kinds of plastic products - all fuelled by 300 tonnes of oil, and the irony of a ship burning uncontrollably for two weeks at sea is not lost on anyone who’s been watching the horizon here in since May 22. ABOVE: Negombo fish market, May 21 - the eve of a still-ongoing lockdown BELOW: June 4 - with Saranga, my neighbour and tuktuk driver When the 186 metre container vessel MV X-Press Pearl, only 4 months old and registered in Singapore, left the Indian port of Hazira on the 15th May, it appears that the crew were already aware of a container on board leaking nitric oxide since the 11th May when it departed from a stop in Hamad, Qatar, having originated from the UAE just the day before. Map:The Washington Post, 15 June Attempts to off-load the leaky container in Qatar, and then India, were denied, with both Port Authorities saying that “there were no specialist facilities or expertise immediately available to deal with the leaking acid,” according to the managing company, X-Press Feeders. On May 20, as the vessel awaited entry into Colombo Port, the crew noticed smoke emanating from the cargo hold. The following day, flames were visible on deck and on the 22nd May an explosion prompted Sri Lankan authorities to respond with on-board fire-fighting and tugs. Image: Getty Images/ Sri Lanka Navy. Sri Lankan navy tugs dousing the flames on board the MS-V Pearl. Why the Sri Lankan Government stepped in with an invitation when no other Indian Ocean nation dared to, is the subject of vitriolic controversy with ‘corruption and incompetence’ twinned as almost systemic causes for a country “owned by China” and $70 billion in debt. (Australian readers take note – the port of Colombo and its glittering portside development is leased to China for 99 years : Sri Lanka OKs commission to oversee Chinese-built port city - Times of India (indiatimes.com) A second explosion rocked the vessel on the 25th May, prompting the evacuation of its 25 crew, with the captain, a Russian national, as well as the Chief Engineer and Assistant Supervisor, taken into police custody, as were locals trawling the beaches for useful flotsam from the 45 containers that fell into the sea. Image: Al Jazeera, May 26, 2021 Meanwhile, some 6400 personnel dispatched from the navies and armies of India and Sri Lanka shovelled plastic granules and heat-mangled fibreglass into 1000s of plastic sacks. “ ... not that we’ll ever get any recognition, let alone thanks”, adds an Indian commentator online. The race against time was desperate. The SW monsoon, which starts in June is expected to deliver heavier than average rainfall, prompting the Marine Environment Protection Authority, on 28 May, to warn us that ‘vigilance’ is required as the possibility of nitrogen oxide, which was emitting into the atmosphere, when mixed with water particles, could ‘pour down as acid rain’. My neighbours covered their bicycles and tuk tuks with sheets and plastic as the pre-monsoon deluge swamped streets. Plans to tow the vessel to deeper waters on June 2 were quickly scuttled, while stormy seas hampered efforts by the SMIT Salvage Company to remove containers and pump remaining fuel from the 1441 containers teetering upon on the boat whose aft portion finally sank to the seabed at 21m depth, with the front section settling ever downwards. Image: Towing the ship off the Colombo Harbour, June 2. Sri Lanka Air forces/ Reuter/ Washington Post And all this during a particularly strenuous lockdown and the fatally heavy flash floods in the north ruined crops of root vegetables and leafy greens, causing local prices to rise sharply. Fishing was immediately forbidden along an 80 km stretch of coast between Negombo and Panadura. Today, a month later, the port remains quiet, the fish market, silent, a place for dogs and the homeless to loiter. Seafood sales have plummeted with fear of contamination. Thousands of fisherfolk whose incomes are curtailed, now have their main food source off-limits. Image(A.K. 4 June): Negombo fish market Movement until June 21 was highly restricted. Security, tight and brisk. Transit between the market town of Negombo and Thalahena, where I live, on the narrow finger of land that separates the vast lagoon from the sea, allowed only with a good reason. Image (A.K.) Police round up loiterers. On the 4th June, with a ‘medical pass’ arranged by my inspired tuk tuk driver, we were able to get as far as the Negombo Bridge to visit the port and beaches. footage (A.K.): Negombo Bridge between Thalahena & Negombo over mouth of inlet June 4 “Who do you work for?” called out the foreigner from the other side of the bridge, as I took photos from inside my three-wheeler. He must have been talking to me, there was absolutely no one else not in a uniform around. (His question prompted me to write this story). A British marine ecologist, he was part of an official group inspecting the Negombo -Thalahena bridge, now hung with weighted tarpaulins attempting to protect the inlet’s precious crab-farming grounds from the influx of debris. Image (A.K): Sri Lankan Marine Environmental Protection Authority with British consultants, at the bridge over the inlet to Negombo Lagoon, 4 June "What's the plan for the of plastic sacks already collected?" I asked the Sri Lankan Marine EPA inspector. "Storage or recycle", he said, without optimism, “and there will be more, we have extended the clean-up further south, to Hikkaduwa”. “And how much is there so far?” I asked. “Off the record?, 45 containers each containing 20 metric tonnes”. On the record, it was reported 18 days later, that as of May 26, 42,000 bags of debris were collected from 138 beaches, and as of June 10, the MEPA said it had collected 1,075 tonnes of waste. On the day that the recorder box was recovered from the vessel, 6th June, I took my dinghy to the southern end of the lagoon, about an hour’s trip one way from home, along mangrove-fringed shores. Footage (A.K.): Southern end of Arie Lagoon 6 June Very little coastal development disturbs the bird habitat and marine breeding grounds that keep this water body healthy and fertile. Indeed, the waters looked clean and free of both flotsam and jetsam. I didn’t see a single plastic sphere bobbing along let alone drifts of them piled up. The water looked pristine as a fisherman punted his skiff along gathering nets. Ten days later, I checked the eastern perimeter, same story. Image (A.K.): 16 June, Arie Lagoon, So far, it looks like the emergency efforts implemented to protect the lagoon when the ship started sinking are successful, a hopeful note for the Sri Lankan Marine Protection Authority who have prepared booms, dispersants and skimmers for when the Pearl finally breaks in two and sinks to the seabed, possibly sending - at this stage, unknown - quantities of oil into the sea. Whilst the Sri Lankan Government is seeking $40 million in damages to cover the interim costs, officials here are investigating and working to mitigate further potential environmental damage. The fish markets meanwhile, remain a sleepy refuge. Image (A.K.): Negombo fish market, June 4 Managing perceptions is exercising official attention. The Washington Post reported on the 14th June that an oily-appearing substance appeared to be emanating from the region of the ship, showing graphic examples of asphyxiated fish washed up on seashores, their gills clogged with nurdles. The next day, the publication found itself having to offer a correction: “The initial version of the article did not give sufficient attention to the divergent views of scientists about the extent of the damage some chemicals may cause. The article has been corrected to include other view “ Meanwhile, the incontrovertible evidence of some 100 sea turtles washed ashore in the area shows "specific parts of their carapace have burns and erosion signs", says Thushan Kapurusinghe of the Turtle Conservation Project, who blamed the fire and chemicals the ship carried for killing the turtles. Image: Associated Press, 20 June However, while Anil Jasinghe, Secretary of the Environment Ministry, said "Provisionally, we can say that these deaths were caused by two methods—one is due to burns from the heat and secondly due to chemicals. These are obvious," he refrained from giving an exact cause, saying "post-mortem analysis are still being conducted." (Washington Post) Keen to avoid any whiff of partiality, The Sri Lankan Government is testing the animals in five different laboratories. The sea off Sri Lanka and its coastline is home to five species of turtles that regularly come to lay eggs. March to June is the peak season for turtle arrivals. It’s thought that the damage to the turtle population could extend beyond the sea, with those that survive to come ashore and lay their eggs in the famous golden sands of Sri Lanka's southern beaches finding that the temperature of the incubating sand has risen due to the inundation of heat-retaining nurdles. The plastic spill remains overwhelming and unprecedented. It’s predicted that the pellets will continue to disperse, arriving in Indonesia in about 60 days, before reversing course during monsoon season later in the year to reach India, Sri Lanka again, the Maldives and perhaps Somalia, ending up in Cocos-Keeling Island and Christmas Island in one to two years. The UN reported on the 20th June that the disaster has caused ‘significant damage to the planet’. From my verandah, the effects of the disaster are obvious. My neighbours, all of them sea fishermen, have time on their hands. Taking their boats out seems more of a pastime than an employment. Roadside vendors offer small piles of tiny lagoon fish, but the markets remain closed. I asked Salitha if he knew of the $40 million compensation being sought. He rolled his eyes. “Someone will be getting rich, he laughed mirthlessly. ... so, any guesses? Me: "why would you eat that?" Saranga, tuk tuk driver: "I dont know. Some people do." And 'that' ? It's an octopus' mouth. References: Sri Lanka ship fire caused ‘significant damage to planet’ | Sri Lanka News | Al Jazeera Heavy rain, floods kill at least 17 in Sri Lanka | Reuters Fire aboard cargo ship has left Sri Lanka’s ecosystem hanging in the balance - Washington Post Black box recovered from fire-stricken ship sinking off Sri Lanka | Sri Lanka News | Al Jazeera Turtle carcasses wash ashore in Sri Lanka after ship fire - The Washington Post Follow: Facebook Instagram

The Shipping News: Sri Lanka